The last few years have produced some stellar nature documentaries that have, incredibly (and impressively), made a big splash in the mainstream. Anything from penguins (March of the Penguins) to birds (Winged Migration) to the planet itself (Planet Earth) have been the subject of acclaimed and popular productions. Now we have what should be a can’t-miss combo of two polar babies: a polar bear and a walrus growing up in a harsh and changing environment. But why isn’t Arctic Tale quite as good as it should be?
Part of the problem is that Arctic Tale is presented as a kiddie movie, and is even rated G. However, parents be warned: Arctic Tale is rated G in the same vein as Bambi. If you remember the trauma you felt when Bambi’s mom was killed, imagine the distress of seeing a cute, fluffy, baby polar bear slowly die of starvation on the ice. If it weren’t for the interruption of the corny narration, I probably would have been a sobbing mess during this sequence (rather than just sniffling and whimpering I can’t help it, OK?).
Arctic Tale is narrated by Queen Latifah with her trademark warm, buttery voice. Unfortunately the script she has to recite is distracting and clunky with its forced appeal to the tot age-bracket. The story is framed around two critters named Nanu (baby girl polar bear) and Seela (baby girl walrus). They both go through trials and tribulations of growing up in the Arctic, including learning how to find food (Nanu’s bear brother didn’t fare so well) and staying away from predators. If seeing Nanu’s brother die isn’t sad enough, you’re heart will break when you see poor Seela, little flippers clasped wearily to her chest, floating alone at sea after being separated from her big walrus family during storm. In another traumatic moment, when one of Neela’s walrus family members get eaten by a polar bear, the actual kill thankfully takes place off camera. Otherwise I (and probably every kid watching) would have started screaming.
The photography in Arctic Tale is unsurprisingly excellent, and its message about global warming is important and alarmingly illustrated. So it is too bad that the script and the unfortunate cutesy insertion of pop songs into scenes (including the dreadfully overused “We Are Family”) often become cringe-worthy annoyances. These flaws are distracting for adult viewers, and the violence and sadness may be traumatizing for younger viewers. Too bad the film couldn’t bring the message and visuals together into a more universal, cohesive piece.