If not for the unexpected box-office success of March of the Penguins, Arctic Tale would never have seen the light of theatrical release. The documentary would have ended up as a National Geographic special on whatever TV channel nature shows are broadcast these days (remember, I don't have cable), and I suspect a slightly less glitzy star than Queen Latifah would have narrated the show. However, Paramount Vantage is gambling that families will flock to theaters to see more polar adventures with adorable animals, even if the animals aren't doing anything we haven't seen before.
The success of March of the Penguins is that it introduced many of us to a phenomenon of nature: the mass marches and other rituals that make up penguin conception and birth. If you're a fan of nature shows you may have known all about the penguin march, but most of us did not. Unfortunately, Arctic Tale does not focus around a similar phenomenon. The movie concentrates its story around a baby polar bear and a baby walrus as they struggle to survive in the Arctic mountains and islands ... especially since in recent years, the ice melts earlier and forms later every year. The phenomenon here is actually global warming, although it is never mentioned by that name, but it is not a radical enough catalyst to muster much interest. The animals themselves are simply too predictable -- they swim, hang out on the ice, wrestle, hunt, and eventually grow up.
Arctic Tale remains on a "cute" level throughout much of the film, aimed at entertaining the youngest members of the audience whenever possible. Oh look, cute baby polar bears. Cute baby walrus rubbing its little whiskers against her momma walrus. Hey, farting walruses, in an almost Blazing Saddles-worthy group scene, which kids will love. The baby polar bear and walrus are given names -- Nanu and Seela -- to help the young audience identify with them. Unnamed animals are fair game, though, and some kids were upset when Nanu's mom felled an adorable little seal for polar bear dinner. That's not even the most traumatic death in the film, although the narration tries to soften the blow by pointing out that one animal's death can save other animals' lives. The soundtrack is downright blatant at times, which I found irritating, but again was meant to appeal to children -- perhaps too much, because it sacrificed the attention of adults to do so.
The Arctic footage itself is sometimes gorgeous, especially the underwater shots and some scenes of ice breaking up and melting into the sea. When I watch movies like this, especially when the action tends to drag a little, I always wonder how the filmmakers and crew are managing. The narration mentions that the temperature is 40 below zero, and I'm not nearly as interested in the polar bears, who are made for icy blasts, as I am in the people and equipment photographing the ice storm. How do you shoot a film in these conditions? I'd rather watch that movie instead. (Apparently some footage of the filmmakers appears in the closing credits if you stick around long enough, but I was not that patient.)
The elephant in the movie is global warming. Queen Latifah never utters the phrase, perhaps because the writers feared the term is so politically loaded that it would turn more conservative viewers away from the movie. At one point, I started entertaining myself by listening for the phrases used to avoid the term -- "Spring, which now comes earlier than expected," "the vanishing Arctic ice," "the increasing warmth," and so forth. The film would have been most effective if it had stopped there, showing us that these animals are having a tougher time with the polar ice melting, and letting us draw our own conclusions. However, again because the movie is aimed towards children, the filmmakers felt they needed to be more obvious, so the closing credits roll over footage of children offering helpful tips for us to get those polar ice caps back in shape, like "If every family just switched one lightbulb to a CFL..." I understand the motivation, but this may hurt the film's chances with families who do not want their children to see movies with "an agenda" -- ultimately, the film could end up preaching to the converted.
My advice is that if you don't want to deal with a overt message about global warming, just drag your kids out of the theater before the closing credits begin, and you'll be fine. They're more likely to remember the adorable polar bear cubs, the farting walruses or the sudden, tragic moments of death anyway. Some viewers may also be disappointed that the monogamy and devoted fatherhood themes many extrapolated from March of the Penguins don't hold over in this part of the animal kingdom: Nanu is raised solely by her mother, and the male polar bears are the villains of the film. Seela is cared for by her mother and an aunt, although the walruses stick together like a big extended family ... or a sprawling hippie commune.
Arctic Tale looks beautiful at times on the big screen, but I think it would play just as well on a television, perhaps on DVD if your family didn't want to sit through 90 minutes of nature film all at once. Some of the kids at the screening I attended were growing restless ... and so was I. At least if you put it on TV for them, you can go in the other room during the cheesy musical montages, but you can't leave the theater. Still, Arctic Tale is a fairly harmless family film (except for the animal deaths, which are not graphic but are sudden and sad) if you want to enjoy a night out at the movies with your children.