Arctic Tale is co-presented by National Geographic Films, which released March of the Penguins, and Paramount Classics, which released An Inconvenient Truth. When it grows up, Arctic Tale would like to be both of those films.
The folksy voiceover narration by Queen Latifah is clearly meant to recall Morgan Freeman’s turn in March of the Penguins, but the overriding theme of climate change would do Al Gore proud, which isn’t surprising, since his daughter Kristin is among the three credited screenwriters.
The catch is, both March of the Penguins and An Inconvenient Truth are documentaries of one sort or another, whereas Arctic Tale really isn’t. A subtle but important clue appears in the opening titles, in which Queen Latifah is credited as “Storyteller.” That’s a good call, for Arctic Tale, though assembled entirely from documentary footage shot by married filmmakers Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson, is, in the end, a work of fiction.
Scenes, dramatic confrontations between animals and, ultimately, a film-long story arc have been fabricated in the editing room. And unrelated bits of footage have been juxtaposed to create the illusion of, for example, a showdown between a polar bear and a walrus — when in fact these two particular animals were never anywhere near each other.
The result is a genre the filmmakers call “nature fiction.” The breezy tone established by Latifah’s narration as we follow “Nanu” and “Seelah” overtly recalls the Disney wildlife adventures of the 1950s. The old-fashioned vibe has been widely noted by critics, many of whom seem to take for granted that this is a strike against the film. I’m not sure why.
The footage, though, is considerably more remarkable. Indeed, the raw materials are the best thing about Arctic Tale, and remain the reason to see the film. The landscape is vast and glacial, the animal pups adorable, their struggle for survival amid bleak conditions wrenching. The filmmakers’ camera takes us inside the polar bears’ birthing den and beneath the ice floes with the walruses. Other species make cameo appearances; we see belugas, orcas, humpbacks and the unicorn-like narwhals.
But there’s no getting away from what this footage has been made into as well. If March of the Penguins provoked debate over the level of anthropomorphism in the dialogue and whether it was heavy-handed, Arctic Tale invites no such argument: It’s over the top.
“Auntie must be wondering what she signed up for,” Latifah concludes at one point. Toward the end, when our heroines reach maturity, we’re told that Seelah isn’t like “some females she knows,” willing to take just any male as a mate: “She has standards.”
What is not built in to the subject matter — and thus had to be forced — is the filmmakers’ decision to make Arctic Tale an all-girl adventure: the story of two young heroines, their mothers, and an auntie. Nanu does have an unnamed brother cub, but he’s belittlingly contrasted with his sister and largely provides comic relief before coming to a tragic end. “Nanu is feisty, her brother timid,” we’re told in an early scene; later, as their mother teaches them how to drill through layers of snow to search for seals, the narrator tells us, “Nanu seems to have what it takes. Her brother … lacks focus.” (“Like a schoolteacher about to zap the kid with Ritalin” is how critic Kyle Smith aptly describes the tone here.)
In the “nature fiction” of the story, this can’t be regarded as a documentary description of a particular polar bear family. In the parade of animals who “play” the various “roles,” we can’t even be sure the sexes are being consistently and accurately assigned. The disparaging approach to the males continues as the animals approach maturity. As the young walrus bulls try out their mating calls, the narration tells us it will be some time before these calls are “worth listening to.” Until then, the females have “better things to do.”
There is one fascinating development late in the film that warrants mention. Although Arctic Tale isn’t particularly “red in tooth and claw” as nature documentaries go, it does invite us to root for, say, Nanu’s mother as she tries to catch adorable seals to feed her hungry cub, which is all good in my book. Then, toward the end, there’s a sequence in which the starving Nanu, now almost fully grown, is driven to try to attack the walrus herd that includes Seelah, the movie’s other heroine. Nanu, though, is too young and inexperienced to take on something as big as a walrus. She fails.
Then comes the large, experienced male polar bear who has been prowling through the whole film, usually threatening Nanu or chasing her away from his own kills. Initially, the male bear attacks Seelah, but Seelah’s stalwart auntie comes to the rescue, and winds up dying to save her young niece. So far, no surprises — but then the starving Nanu approaches the male bear’s kill, and stubbornly refuses to be driven off as she has in the past. Eventually the male relents — and the life of one heroine is saved as she chows down on the carcass of the other heroine’s beloved auntie. And then Nanu becomes the “mean” male bear’s mate. Arctic Tale may be anthropomorphic, but at least it doesn’t give us an infantile world of nasty predators and nice prey.
If predators aren’t the enemy, what is? Climate change. Whether or not the individual images document an environment in flux, the progression in the film is certainly artificial. As uncomfortable as the polar bears look on slushy ice floes, for example, there’s no telling as to how unusual (or seasonal) an occurrence this is.
Thanks to its aggressive ideology, forced humor and overly cute storytelling, Arctic Tale is not a movie I would care to watch repeatedly. I am glad I saw its spectacular photography, though. The film reminds me why my favorite nature documentaries — Atlantis, Microcosmos, Winged Migration, Deep Blue — tend to be wordless, or largely so. Sometimes, the less said, the better.
Steven D. Greydanus is editor and chief critic of DecentFilms.com.
Content Advisory: Some predatory menace and grisly scenes of predation; some flatulence humor.