A primer for young environmentalists
"Arctic Tale" has a very precise audience in mind: Young children who aren't yet ready for the graphs and sociopolitical alarm bells of "An Inconvenient Truth."
A National Geographic coproduction, this often astonishing live-action documentary wedges footage of polar bears, walruses, and other citizens of the Arctic Circle into the narrative confines of a picture book. For parents, it will seem a contrived but useful discussion tool. For kids, it may open the door to a lifetime of engaged environmental stewardship. Given that, they could have shot the film with sock puppets and I'd be fine with it.
Queen Latifah narrates with folksy cadences the story of two North Pole denizens born into a changing world. Nanu is a girl polar bear with a pesky twin brother whose mother hustles them into lessons in seal-catching. Seela is a baby walrus kept afloat by her mama and an "auntie" in a sea of whiskered, tusked behemoths.
All is not well, however. The millennia-long rhythms of melt and freeze are being disrupted by unseen forces beyond the horizon. Winter comes months late, forcing the polar bears on an arduous trek that little brother doesn't survive. The infant walrus is briefly lost in open water. Fast-forward several years and Seela's herd and the now-grown Nanu embark on an exhausting 200-mile swim to a barren rock where food is scarce and crowding severe. Environmental change has turned the Arctic's "rightful masters into refugees."
"Arctic Tale" mitigates this climate dread with the cute-'n'-fuzzies. The babies are adorable, the soundtrack choices ("We Are Family") obvious, the biological diversity awe-inspiring. When the ice parts to reveal a group of narwhals cresting the surface, horns glinting in the sun, it's hard not to feel we're witnessing a wintry Eden.
Screenwriters Linda Woolverton ("The Lion King"), Mose Richards, and Kristin Gore (Al's daughter) know where their tiny audience's hearts live, though, and a sequence in which the walrus herd comes down with the farts prompted happy giggles at the screening I attended. (It plays like the "Blazing Saddles" campfire scene remade with pinnipeds.)
Elsewhere, "Arctic Tale" isn't shy about what survival in the animal kingdom entails, and even the slowest child will realize something cute is going to buy the farm sooner or later. A shot of a male polar bear dismembering a bloody catch is rough, and the death of Nanu's brother in a blizzard is a slow-motion heartbreaker. The kids at the screening watched these scenes in sober silence, perhaps glad that someone was telling them the truth.
The real hero of the film (besides the animals) is filmmaker Sarah Robertson, who has been documenting Arctic wildlife for almost two decades. Her footage is up close and personal while standing far enough back to capture the larger sweep of nature. Editor Beth Spiegel has stitched the images into a convincing narrative, although sharp-eyed grown-ups will notice that critters who were probably miles and months apart have been awkwardly cut together to keep the story moving.
Sprightly tunes by the likes of Aimee Mann, The Shins, and Brian Wilson should guarantee healthy CD sales and keep the eco-message alive, but it's the final moments of "Arctic Tale" that take off the gloves. As the credits roll, children address the camera with suggestions on how kids can conserve energy, ranging from "Turn off the lights" to "If mom and dad buy a hybrid car, it'll make it easier for polar bears to get around."
Simplistic answers for small audiences, I guess. As happy as many of us are that the upcoming generation is being told "We have to change the way we live" -- and we do -- the specter of an army of 8-year-old enviro-narcs strong-arming their parents is a little worrisome. Tell you what, kids: I'll buy the Prius if you clean up your room.