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What a difference a few decades makes! While the environment and discussion of climate change was definitely around in the 1980s, it wasn’t until after we hit the new millennium that it started to become the recurring and predominant backbone for works that focused on nature and the increasing devastation that will only get worse if we refuse to face this very Inconvenient Truth-- to quote the title of Al Gore’s Oscar winning documentary a few years back.
While no film has yet to rival the combination of strength, urgency, passion, and clarity served up in Gore’s Power-Point style presentation as a man on a mission—there’s been a great influx of nature documentaries aimed at those who will inherit this Earth in the future.
With the smash success of the Oscar winning The March of the Penguins which charmed audiences from all walks of life from around the globe helped bring a blend of science and nature into the lives of children in a far more impactful way than my era of Free Willy, Raffi’s hit kiddie song “Baby Beluga,” and my Shamu stuffed animal— children have been inundated with more nature works such as Earth, the most recent Disneynature theatrical version of the BBC documentary Planet Earth and via Paramount Studios Home Entertainment’s Blu-ray release of their 2007 work Arctic Tale.
From those who managed to March those irresistible Penguins in association with Starbucks Entertainment and National Geographic Films, this fifteen year labor of love from husband and wife filmmaking team Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson also boasts a link to Al Gore in the form of his daughter Kristin Gore who serves as one of the contributing writers to the film’s narrative track brought to life by Queen Latifah (Last Holiday, Chicago, Bringing Down the House).
And although the attempt to combine the message of And Inconvenient Truth with the beauty of footage presented to us in the wildly popular (yet admittedly slightly dull) Penguins is admirable indeed, in the end Arctic Tale is an uneven film.
This seems mostly due to the fact that the sheer power of its stunning images are hindered by a folksy script that finds Latifah making “that’s how we roll” and “slippery little suckers” type of jokes throughout. Likewise, and much to the detriment of their absolutely stunning piece of work, the filmmakers (or possibly their studio inspired editing team) additionally try to insert the same kid-friendly appeal of Disney and DreamWorks pieces by working in a kitschy soundtrack as “We are Family” bursts out of the speakers and there’s an obligatory, overly long sequence completely comprised of flatulence and belching in trying to make the incredible footage of the walruses seem instead to have been extras from the film Shrek.
Despite this, the movie is one you can’t miss for the sheer beauty and magnitude of it as a historical document since sadly--as reminded throughout in a nice generational blend of global warming and other statistics to intrigue adults and a nice “family unit” style circle-of-life plot-line for children—we learn that the ice could all disappear from the Arctic area by 2040.
Far more female-centric than March of the Penguins and one that rivets in an old-fashioned way by presenting us with an admittedly human styled “coming-of-age” paradigm (aside from the clichés and contrivances contained in the poor script) that would probably send most scientific minds reeling as we follow two female newborn animals—the sweet-natured polar bear cub Nanu and the strong female in training Seela, a walrus pup.
Selecting to combine these two vastly different realms of the Arctic as the bears are fundamentally land-based and the walruses have their domain in the sea is an intriguing choice that benefits the work and one that was inspired when as the Paramount Classics press notes reveal, “Ravetch and Robertson noticed something they had been told almost never happened in the wild—polar bears and walruses crossing paths.”
Amazed by the fact that they repeatedly observed “these two titans of the Arctic coming together and clashing,” Ravetch explained that upon further research, they started to realize how much both species have “in common because they are both so profoundly dedicated to caring for and teaching their young,” thereby decided that they aspired to “share this [lesser-known and rarely studied] side of these magnificent animals.”
While the walruses all huddle close together throughout their lives—just like the polar bears, the rearing of children is left primarily to the women as a newborn baby walrus (which Latifah points out is something that doesn’t happen very often, thus making a new “pup” a treasured addition to the herd) finds they’re protected completely by both their mother who nurses them as well as one bodyguard like “Auntie” ready to fight off anything that stands in their way including polar bears who are at a disadvantage in the water.
However, on the crisp snow and ice of the Arctic, the polar bears rule their domain, although fascinatingly the female bears serve as single parents, rearing the young and trying with all her might to fend off the older male polar bears prone to attacking baby bear cubs.
Additionally devoting her time to teaching the baby cubs how to hunt for food, audiences are quick to understand just how important of a task and skill this is since-- out of nineteen attempts-- they’ll only succeed a single time and as we see in the film are always on the threat of starvation, sometimes securing food only once in a half a dozen months.
And although primarily the directors focus on the journey of the younger animals in these two species (obviously taking liberties and suspending disbelief since animals change and ice moves every year in a territory where it can take months to land a shot), nature lovers will rejoice in the wide variety of other animals caught on film.
From the ringed seal (a distant cousin of the walrus and incidentally the favorite food of the polar bears) to the amazing “unicorns of the sea” in the Narwhals whom Latifah describes one can liken to “a lost tribe of the Arctic,” to birds, lots of marine life and beluga whales—I was dazzled by just how clear and varied the footage was from the talented crew members who risked life and limb by getting ridiculously close to animals that could kill them within an instant.
And as we learn in the “making-of” extra, to do so, they even went as far as to don cumbersome underwater gear to swim with the animals and get a better point of view in presenting us with treasured images the likes of which most of us will never have the opportunity to see.
Although this is all unfortunately wrapped up in the hokey trappings of a lackluster narration that the otherwise talented Latifah sincerely tries to make come alive with her warmth and humor-- nonetheless it’s an inspiring, refreshingly G-rated and celebratory work. Likewise, it's one you can feel safe sharing with your family as the filmmakers—parents themselves—make the commendable and tasteful decision not to serve up any gore throughout.
While of course, you may wish that some of the attributes like “We Are Family” and endless flatulence would’ve been left on the cutting room floor as well as any carnage—this wondrously vivid and crisp presentation sparkles nicely in a Blu-ray edition that rivals the expense and quality of taking the entire family to an IMAX work (with the full 1080 pixel high definition sound and clarity of image).
Moreover, it also adds in some nice bonus features about the making-of-the-film and craft of polar bear spotting which-- despite being only included in standard definition-- help give you an even greater appreciation for not just the great pains taken in crafting the film itself but more importantly our precious responsibility to ensure that the Arctic will still exist in 2040 as our children will find themselves touched by the plight of Arctic Tale’s “animal” children.
Encounters at the End of the World
Encounters at the End of the World