Arctic Tale

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Spectacular photography of the frigid domain of polar bears, walruses and seals is the chief attraction of "Arctic Tale," a new documentary which hopes to combine the appeal of "March of the Penguins" and "An Inconvenient Truth." Like the former film, this National Geographic production observes the mating and survival rituals of a group of imperiled creatures who inhabit the frozen wasteland at the tip of our world. And like Al Gore's lecture on global warming, "Arctic Tale" adds a green message to its nature photography by pointing out how climate change cracks the ice floes that mean the difference between life and death for many exotic creatures.

Whereas "Penguins" enlisted Morgan Freeman as narrator, this new film employs Queen Latifah as "storyteller" to recount the lovable exploits of Nanu, a young polar bear, and Seela, a baby walrus. This new picture seems guaranteed to attract a family audience, but it might not match the impact of those two earlier Oscar-winning docus. Sometimes it hurts to be second -- or third. The novelty is definitely gone.

The narration is the weakest element in the film. Written by Linda Woolverton, Mose Richards and Al Gore's daughter Kristin, the voice-over sometimes resorts to blatant message-mongering. Just as problematic is the cutesy tone that infects Latifah's chronicle of the mishaps of Nanu and Seela on their journeys across the ice. The use of music is also a bit heavy-handed, like the choice of Sister Sledge's "We Are Family" to celebrate the camaraderie of a herd of walruses.

The film would be more enjoyable if one could turn off the soundtrack and simply revel in the stunning visual evocation of this white-on-white world. Co-director Adam Ravetch is also the principal cinematographer, and he is aided by a crack team that caught amazing footage above the ice and underwater as well. The animals' search for food as well as their struggle to survive their enemies makes for a fascinating Darwinian adventure.

Children will be mesmerized by the animal footage, and adults will glory in the landscapes and respond to the sobering reminders of climate change. While the film shows bears hunting seals and walruses, it discreetly averts its gaze from the most savage animal attacks. It's probably even a little less graphic than the Disney true-life nature documentaries that were popular with families in the 1950s.

The gradual melting of the ice makes it far more difficult for these Arctic creatures to find the food they need to survive, so "Arctic Tale" adds to our understanding of how the balance of nature is being upset by human abuse of the environment. But most viewers will find the ecological manifesto less eye-opening than the lovingly rendered tableaux of animals romping and foraging at the North Pole.

ARCTIC TALE
Paramount Classics
National Geographic Films
Credits:
Directors: Adam Ravetch, Sarah Robertson
Screenwriters: Linda Woolverton, Mose Richards, Kristin Gore
Producers: Keenan Smart, Adam Leipzig
Director of photography: Adam Ravetch
Music: Joby Talbot
Editors: Beth Spiegel, Mia Goldman
Cast:
Storyteller: Queen Latifah
Running time -- 85 minutes
MPAA rating: G
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