By Matt Singer
[Photo: “Arctic Tale,” Paramount Vantage, 2007]
“Arctic Tale” sounds an alarm about our society’s environmental impact on the Arctic Ocean an alarm that sounds distinctly like a walrus fart. This mystifying film, equal parts whimsical children’s book and apocalyptic nature documentary, oscillates wildly between tones and moods and digestive functions, particularly in one outlandish scene where a pack of walruses eat a hearty meal and let ’em rip. Not since Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles” has the silver screen been torn asunder by such a display of cinematic flatulence.
And this is a movie about global warming, although “Arctic Tale” never actually uses that term (the narration, written by Linda Woolverton, Mose Richards and Kristin Gore daughter of Al Gore prefers less divisive terminology like “increasing warmth”). The world its intrepid directors, Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson, have spent fifteen years recording, a world of polar bears, walruses and ice floes, is being threatened by hotter and hotter weather, and they record it all in devastating detail. But they temper that material with one of the most juvenile narratives imaginable, and they mold their raw footage into a story that is pretty clearly invented by the filmmakers in the editing room rather than captured in the wild.
This story, about a polar bear cub named Nanu and a walrus pup named Seela, sees the natural world as a Disney animator does, precociously and with a rather strange sense of morality. Nanu and Seela are given names, are followed around by a camera crew and survive in the face of increasingly bad odds. In the childhood logic of “Arctic Tale,” that makes them heroes, even as they do some horrific, ferocious things. This leads to a truly creepy sequence wherein heartwarming music plays while two of the characters eat the third. Bambi’s mom’s got nothing on this stuff.
If there was a surer filmmaking hand at the editing bay command, one might suspect that these sequences are intended to give the environmental message a bigger emotional punch. More likely, this “Baby’s First Global Warming Lesson” was a bit too horrifying for its young audience to stomach (and maybe for their parents too), and so the powers that be injected levity wherever they could, the more immature and reassuringly cuddly the better.
To a degree, my opinion is irrelevant, since “Arctic Tale” is pitched toward very small kids and I’m not one and don’t have any. But I’ve got to believe this film, however well-intentioned, will leave children unnerved and confused, particularly during those weird closing credits where children tell us how to combat global warming. (I liked the one who told me buying a hybrid would directly help polar bears.) I can just imagine the questions that await parents on their way out of the theater: “Mommy, why are the walrus farts making it hotter?”
“Arctic Tale” opens in limited release on July 25th (official site).