‘Arctic Tale’: live footage, dead story

Times Staff Writer

Reinforcing the adage that looks aren’t everything, the live-action animal drama “Arctic Tale” arrives in an impressive visual package and even boasts a timely message, but its undistinguished storytelling is a big letdown. Presented by Paramount Classics and National Geographic Films, the movie’s publicity materials compare it to the documentaries “March of the Penguins” and “An Inconvenient Truth,” but in reality it has more in common with the old “Walt Disney’s True-Life Adventures” from the 1950s.

Directors Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson shot more than 800 hours of footage and married the images to a made-up narrative about a polar bear and a walrus coming of age in the dwindling glacial wilderness. Dubbed “nature fiction,” it is clearly designed to appeal to children and bring a warmer, more emotional urgency to global warming, but the pandering tone and sentimental manipulation will be off-putting to all save the most easily amused.

The film follows the polar bear cub, Nanu, and the walrus pup, Seela, (both composites of multiple animals) as they are born into the beautiful but harsh environs at the top of the world. The story cuts back and forth as the two grow, learning survival techniques from their mothers and fending off predators until they eventually become adults on their own.

The narrative relies on a storyteller (Queen Latifah) to convey, as well as comment upon, the details of Nanu and Seela’s existence.


Written by Linda Woolverton, Mose Richards and Kristen Gore, the dialogue quickly goes from gentle to annoying as it seeks to anthropomorphize the animals in much the same way animated films do.

The tenor is primarily dramatic, with Nanu and Seela’s survival depending on their wiles (and the kindness of editors). However, that does not prevent the filmmakers from inserting jokes (many of which are groan-inducing attempts at being hip) and resorting to flatulence as a source of humor.

As the animals mature, the narration projects onto them the psychology of teenage girls, reducing the life-or-death struggle to something akin to the catty hallways of a really mean junior high.

The film may actually play better on video with the narration turned off, making it easier to enjoy the marvelous photography unfettered by hackneyed commentary.

Shot in, on and under ice floes throughout the Arctic Circle, the film captures the rugged and endangered beauty of the landscapes, as well as the splendor of the creatures.

Considering the high stakes portrayed, the drama is surprisingly lackluster. It’s “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom” recast as a melodrama. And that’s too bad because it takes something away from the film’s main theme, which is that the animals’ vanishing habitat is a bigger threat to them than any of their natural rivals.

A parade of children interviewed over the end credits reminds us of all the ways we can help the environment and by extension the real-life Nanus and Seelas of the world. Yet no amount of consciousness-raising can make up for the schmaltzy treatment their fictional counterparts receive here.


“Arctic Tale.” MPAA rating: G. Running time: 1 hour, 25 minutes. At Pacific’s ArcLight, 6360 W. Sunset Blvd. (at Ivar Avenue), Hollywood, (323) 464-4226, and Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, 1332 2nd St., Santa Monica, (310) 394-9741; opens in general release Aug. 17.