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March of the Polar Bears (and the Walruses)
by Mel Valentin on Aug 03, 2007
Optimistically marketed as the next March of the Penguins, Arctic Tale is a documentary centered on the polar bears and walruses that make their home in the cold, unforgiving Arctic. Shot over five years by husband-and-wife team Sarah Robertson and Adam Ravetch on high-definition video, Arctic Tale was developed, at least partly, to convey the consequences global warming has had on the Arctic. That the voice over narration by Queen Latifah was co-written by Kristen “daughter of Al” Gore shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Gore’s anti-global warming, pro-environmentalism advocacy (as evidenced in last year’s Academy Award-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth).
Arctic Tale follows a female polar bear cub, dubbed “Nanu” by the voice over narration, and a female walrus pup, “Seela”. Nanu and Seela are born around the same time. Along with her twin brother, Nanu is born inside an ice cave carved out by her mother. Seela is born underwater, surrounded by her relatives, including a female referred to in the voiceover narration as Seela’s “auntie”. Polar bears, however, are loners. Lone males can be dangerous to a female polar bear attempting to protect her cubs. Once a polar bear reaches the age of three, they’re on their own. In contrast, walruses live in large, social herds. For those first few years, however, Nanu and Seela’s mothers provide them with food, teach them to hunt or forage, and prepare them for being on their own.
By the second year, Nanu and Seela are making progress toward independence, but changing environmental conditions are having a negative impact on their chances for long-term survival. Nanu’s brother gets weak and sick from malnutrition. Incapable of providing for Nanu, Nanu’s mother forced Nanu to leave. With minimal training and an altered environment, Nanu is forced to fend for herself. With her mother and auntie as support, Seela is marginally better off, but food is growing scarce for the walrus herd too. The ice floes and rafts vital for walruses to rest and socialize on are also in short supply. The walrus herd is forced to undertake a dangerous 60-mile swim across open water to reach a rocky island. Near starvation, Nanu and an unnamed, male polar bear make a similar fateful decision.
With an emphasis on anthropomorphizing polar bears and walruses, the question arises as to whether Robertson and Ravetch took liberties with the video footage to craft a storyline to fit the story they wanted to tell. Given the inability to tell polar bears or walruses apart, moviegoers might wonder if they're watching the same polar bears and walruses all the way through Arctic Tale. Robertson and Ravetch's five years on this project, however, suggest that they took the time necessary to locate and follow the same polar bears and walruses, patiently waiting until the right shot and the right conditions presented themselves. Still, it's just as likely that Robertson and Ravetch edited Arctic Tale to fit a storyline they had in mind developed before or during the arduous shooting process.
Whatever else can be said about Arctic Tale, the anti-global warming message comes through loud and clear (not that there’s anything wrong with the message of course). By following the polar bears and the walruses and their struggle to survive in the Arctic over several seasons, Robertson and Ravetch were able to highlight environmental changes presumably caused by global warming: the springs and summers are longer, the falls and winters shorter, the ice takes longer to harden, ice floes appear later in the season in smaller numbers, forcing the polar bears and the walruses to adapt to their radically different environments.
Unfortunately, Arctic Tale’s positive qualities are undermined by its unpolished “look”. Relying on high-definition video was probably an economical, efficient choice by Robertson and Ravetch, but the result is a grainy, blown-up feel that diminishes the beauty and grandeur of the Arctic. March of the Penguins benefited from a shot-on-film look that showed Antarctica’s environment to its best advantage. That’s not to say that Robertson and Ravetch don’t include the occasional awe-inspiring shot (one featuring beluga whales swimming through a gap in an ice shelf is particularly striking), just that Arctic Tale doesn’t have enough of those moments for the average moviegoer to run out and see it opening weekend.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
by Mel Valentin on Aug 03, 2007