Weighing as much as two tons and armored with an almost impenetrable hide, the walrus, when charging, tusks agleam and sounding his battle cry, “uk-uk,” is well called the Tiger of the North.
— Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty 1922)
“Far beyond the world we humans know,” narrates Queen Latifah at the start of Arctic Tale, lies another world, where ice and snow make some creatures who are not human, a “paradise on earth.” Ah yes, this would be the frozen wasteland you’ve seen so much of lately, what with the onslaught of penguin movies. This documentary, however, risks not focusing on the cutest of all flightless birds born into tuxedos. Instead, it splits its time between a cute little polar bear and a cute little walrus, neither especially cuddly but both increasingly well known emblems (thank you, Al Gore) of the costs of global warming.
Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson, married to each other, reportedly spent six years following their subjects, then worked as well with other filmmakers’ footage to “fictionalize” the tale. Their polar bear, named Nanu, and the walrus, named Seela (because animals with charming and vaguely “exotic” names appeal to optimum target demographics, namely, kids used to watching Disney product) are born into their shared paradise, far apart: the bear is, after all, inclined to eat the walrus. As Nanu first peeps from beneath the small dark cave her mother has fashioned in the surrounding “blanket of white,” she’s accompanied by a little brother — whose lack of a name and attention by the narrator indicates that you’d best not become too attached to him. At the same time, Seela makes her own way into the frigid air, exploring the “vast kingdom at the top of the world.”
We get it. The arctic is fantastic and white and royal, but it is also endangered too. “Like all newborns,” soothes Queen Latifah (here called the “storyteller”), these “have much to learn.” The “children of the arctic,” whose actual mothers are anonymous, trundle off across the tundra, about to discover that their world is changing: “They will face challenges never before faced by their species.” Not that Nanu or Seela has any notion of a species or even much of an idea about “change.” Each struggles to find food and keep up with the adults who move much faster.
Nanu’s mother “has had enough of the cramped cave,” observes the narrator, because, of course, this is why polar bears venture forth into 20 degrees below freezing weather. And so she leads the kiddies somewhere else, again and again in search of something to eat. The “storytelling” is peppered with peculiar phrasing, as when Seela must figure out how to heave her 80 pounds from icy water to icy shore (mom can’t help here, says Latifah, “Seela’s got to master the heavy lifting on her own”), or when the walrus herd gathers on a giant rock to sun themselves to the soundtrack tune of “We Are Family” or fart (as the film reaches clumsily for comedy amid the general tragedy of the walruses’ decline, owing to climate change and starvation).
Trying too hard to reinvent the penguin subgenre, Arctic Tale does a few things differently: focusing its anthropomorphizing energies on girls instead of boys, on natural enemies instead of platoons of birds who all look alike. That said, the film’s own gendering process is as retro as any of the boy-centric sagas. When at last Seela has endured her difficult adolescence, the transition is marked marked by the narrator’s observation that her tusks “have filled out nicely and the boys are taking notice.” Fortunately for this G-rated film’s younger viewers, Seela has “standards” when it comes to those boys, “unlike some other females she knows.” Because, you know, walruses disapprove of skanks.
One female Seela doesn’t know, at least intimately, is Nanu, who initially roams with her mother over the shrinking landscape. When it’s time for mom to move on without her, the mournful scene is punctuated by long shots of bears alone in the whiteness, poignant music, and Latifah’s nudging narration: “One look tells her that life with her mother is over.” Nanu, whose grief we can only imagine, “heads beyond the ice she knows,” into the expanse that looks just like the ice she knows. As hunting is increasingly sparse, bears are like “nomads… bearing silent witness to the changing times” (that again: for all the seriousness of the issue, the repetition is dispiriting). Unlike Nanu, “Foxy,” a white fox who might be following Nanu, can’t swim, so when the polar bear leaps into the sea, the maybe-companion “will have to say goodbye to his bear.” Whether or not Nanu notices remains unknown, as the film records no “one look” to underline the moment.
Nanu’s venturing into adolescence is driven by hunger — which is in the end too violent for a kids’ picture. While the walruses might gobble down fish without showing too much Animal Planety aggression, the bears tear down prey and rip flesh. To avoid this display, the film shows Nanu scavenging for already-dead carcasses, standing up to the other bear who made the kill in order to get a bite of it. This display of “toughness” suffices for Nanu’s growing up, and the film cuts ahead to a future when she’s found a mate and so will repeat her mother’s off-screen-sexing-and-birthing cycle.
Arctic Tale means well, but it flounders repeatedly, both in its cartoonish characterizations of walrus and bear, and its earnest efforts to raise kid viewers’ awareness of global warming. While it doesn’t purport to be a documentary per se (whatever that might be, given currently shifting boundaries concerning truth and responsibility), the film uses documentary footage to make up its tale. The baby bear is undeniably adorable, the maturing walrus is a fascinating social being. But the film’s storytelling contrivances are unconvincing.