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Greg MacGillivray, arguably the leading practitioner of the giant-screen format, gives the northernmost latitudes their first IMAX close-up in To the Arctic. The inaugural release of his One World One Ocean Foundation, the documentary delivers its generic, kid-friendly conservation message via simplistic narration and, more effectively, through 3D footage of the pristine landscape, its warming waters and, especially, the animals struggling to adapt to the changing environment. The didactic approach won’t sit well with nature-film fans who appreciate a more grown-up edge. But Arctic, which opens Friday, should be on solid ground with families and elementary and middle school classes.
Seabirds, walruses and caribou all get their screen time, but it’s the intimate family saga of a heroic polar bear and her two young cubs that gives the film its emotional power. When MacGillivray and his team of IMAX veterans were close to wrapping photography (they shot for a total of eight months over a four-year period), they came across an atypical mother bear who allowed them remarkable close-range access for nearly a week.
If the polar bear has become a poster child for crusaders against global warming, To the Arctic goes beyond the species’ symbolic value to offer something specific in this trio’s story of survival against mounting odds. As the gentle hectoring of Meryl Streep’s narration explains, the bears could not survive elsewhere, and their frigid home is warming two times faster than anywhere else on the planet. The longer summers, melting glaciers and thinner ice pack make the mother’s job all the tougher, particularly when male bears, deprived of prime hunting by the shifts in climate, target her frolicking 7-month-olds. The film makes the threat of one such predatory male fully felt.
That suspenseful sequence is balanced by a fair share of aww moments involving the sibling cubs as well as a newborn caribou — adorable all, and all intensely vulnerable because of disruptions to the seasonal cycles. But direst circumstances are suggested rather than illustrated; even in a successful hunt by the mother bear, there are no grisly parts, just the aftereffects: bloodstained ice and satiated cubs. Selections from Paul McCartney’s songbook, recent and Beatles-era, italicize the mood of certain scenes, from playful to plaintive, and the lessons in eco-consciousness.
More subtle than the music soundtrack is the use of 3D. It heightens the feeling of being with the filmmakers on the ice, in the water and, most dramatically, in the air: Aerial shots of waterfalls gushing off the edge of ice fields are spectacular evidence of accelerated melting. MacGillivray and cinematographer Brad Ohlund, no strangers to ocean documentaries, incorporate terrific underwater footage of the massive bears swimming, and of cameramen at work beside them, whether in risky dives or on the surface.
Compared with the pizzazz of abundant deep-sea exotica that MacGillivray and Ohlund explored in such films as Coral Reef Adventure, the Arctic has a spare, stark beauty. There’s even something familiar about it in To the Arctic, which aims to reassure while it sounds the alarm. The finished product is smoothed to a fault. Even so, intrepid documentarians have brought back an affecting wildlife story and evidence of rapidly changing conditions.
Opens: Friday, April 20 (Warner Bros.)
Warner Bros. Pictures and IMAX Filmed Entertainment present a MacGillivray Freeman Film/One World One Ocean presentation
Narrator: Meryl Streep
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Writer/editor: Stephen Judson
Producer: Shaun MacGillivray
Director of photography: Brad Ohlund
Music: Steve Wood
MPAA rating: G, 40 minutes
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