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Watch This Review

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Movie Review

Ice. Snow. Triple-digit, subzero windchill. That's the heart of luxury for Arctic Tale's exotic inhabitants—an assortment of feuding animals who are all getting a little edgy because the temps have started skyrocketing to say, oh, above freezing.

In truth, the film's main characters—Nanu, a polar bear, and Seela, a walrus—don't think much about global warming. We see the arctic through their eyes and, at first, we find a shimmering and glorious world. Polar bears scamper and slide down snowy hillsides. Walruses sun themselves on chilly floes. Activity teems underneath the freeze, the waters alive with clams, seals, murres and narwhals.

This is the world into which Nanu and Seela are born. Nanu haltingly pushes her way out of the darkness of the birthing cave to sniff the frozen air. A newborn Seela is embraced underwater by her mother and aunt; They brush their sensitive bristles against each other's faces—"memorizing" them, we're told, through touch.

They are creatures of the cold, as dependant on each other as they are on a frigid ecosystem that ebbs and flows with the seasons. But their world is changing. The walruses' ice floes are melting, and they must swim for a week to find a solid, rocky outcrop of land on which to rest. The bears return to their hunting grounds in the arctic fall, only to find the ice is not strong enough to hunt on.

The gradual warming forces a harsh choice upon these awe-inspiring creatures: Adapt or die.

March of the Penguins 2?
Arctic Tale isn't a straight documentary: Nanu and Seela are not real, individual animals tracked by the filmmakers, but rather composites of polar bears and walruses filmed over the last decade. It is, in essence, an amped up episode of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom.

But what an episode. Arctic Tale is made by National Geographic, the same production company that brought the surprise smash March of the Penguins to movie screens in 2005. And many of the ingredients that made Penguins work for just about everybody who saw it are here. The animals are funny and courageous, loving and sacrificial. The cinematography may be more breathtaking than it was in Penguins. And like Penguins, when the audience is confronted with death, the subject is handled with care and visual circumspection, even tenderness—without trying to minimize or sanitize it. When polar bears hunt, the kill is shown from a distance. Only once do we see death up close—the corpse of a polar bear cub, who looks like he's sleeping half buried in snow.

That said, this arctic exploration is not Penguins 2. Gone is March's quiet dignity—the calm rolling voice of Morgan Freeman, Emperor penguins stoically cradling eggs on their feet as they're pelted by wind. This is, in some ways, lighter fare. When we see Seela's lounging extended clan—a slowly heaving mass of blubber and whiskers and tusks—Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" plays in the background. Queen Latifah's narration is sparked with casual slang (but never any foul language). She tells us, for instance, that these walruses are "all up in each other's business," and as they struggle to pull themselves up onto a rocky island with their flippers, she quips, "Maybe they should've laid off some of those clams."

Nanu eventually meets a nice boy bear who fathers a couple of cubs with her after the two grapple and clutch. Seela, too, finds a suitor who grunts out a particularly tender mating ballad, and the two are seen cuddling and kissing underwater. "She knows what they're after," Latifah says with a wink in her voice.

Far less "romantic" is an extended scene in which Seela's family is shown (or, rather, heard) participating in what Latifah calls a "game of pull my flipper." Between bouts of hysterical laughter, 8-year-old humans will identify it as a "burp and fart contest."

Or Maybe Another Inconvenient Truth
Penguins is about—well, penguins. It's an intimate movie, tightly focused and self-contained. But in the end, Arctic Tale isn't as much about polar bears and walruses as it is about their changing world—a world growing warmer.

Most of the film steers clear of the global warming "debate." Latifah does not talk about greenhouse gasses or carbon footprints. She and the footage simply lay out what the animals see: Longer summers. Less ice.

But then the credits approach, and subtlety is bashed to bits like so much fragile ice giving way under the crushing weight of a one-ton walrus.

Nanu and her two new baby cubs are looking wistfully at the camera. Latifah says, "What will their children do if it [this icy world] disappears? What will ours?"

Switch to hard-sell mode. As we read about (and see) the filmmakers who braved brutal conditions to make the movie, cute kids appear to tell the audience what it should do to help these bears and walruses survive and frolic. Plant more trees. Use compact fluorescents. Wash your clothes in cold water.

"If your mom and dad bought a hybrid car, it'd make it easier for polar bears to get around," says one child.

It's a guilt trip, plain and simple—given by children and directed at children, some of whom will likely nag their parents to drive to a Prius dealership immediately after the movie. "Don't you like the polar bears?" they'll ask, lower lip quivering. Even many moviegoers who are inclined to embrace environmental messages will bristle at this overt manipulation, particularly since it is aimed at such a young audience.

It's a last-minute tactic that turns Arctic Tale into a beautiful, moving, family-friendly film—with an unseemly, new-hybrid-car sales pitch at the end. It had me at hello. It lost me at goodbye.


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