‘Operation Arctic (Operasjon arktis)’: Sundance Review

Operation Arctic Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Norwegian Film Institute

Operation Arctic Still - H 2015

An icebound story related with warmth and wonder

A handsomely produced children's film that was right behind 'Frozen' and 'How to Train Your Dragon 2' in Norway's 2014 box office top ten.

In the time-honored tradition of family adventure films in which kids find themselves stranded in isolation and are forced to depend on their own resourcefulness to get home, there can be few realizations of a regrettable misstep to match, "Oops, we’re at the North Pole!" Norwegian writer-director Grethe Boe-Waal's domestic box office hit, Operation Arctic, is a captivating throwback to innocent Saturday-matinee fare that tells a gripping survival story against a backdrop of breathtaking frozen landscapes. It also has beautiful polar bear footage and the cutest white husky you'll ever see sitting down to a plate of meatballs.

Based on a novel by Norwegian children's author Leif Hamre, the film starts with a ripper of a pre-titles sequence featuring ginger-maned wild man Kristofer Hivju from Game of Thrones as a humane trapper on a remote arctic island. In a nod to global warming, he fears for the lives of two polar bear cubs, noting that they may starve if the sea doesn't freeze in time for their anxious mother to reach the mainland where she can hunt. When he finds one of the cubs perishing on the shore, he approaches and gets into a tense faceoff with mama bear.

Back in civilization, petulant teenage Julia (Kaisa Gurine Antonsen) and her eight-year-old twin siblings Ida (Ida Leonora Valestrand Eiki) and Sindre (Leonard Valestrand Eiki) complain to their mother (Line Verndal) about being uprooted to a new home in a northern town. They are counting the 53 days until their father (Nicolai Cleve Broch) returns from a job in the south.

Feisty Sindre gets into a scuffle with a bully at school, injuring the older boy, while Julia ignores Ida's urging for her to intervene. Fearing repercussions, the three of them flee the school grounds and end up at a nearby helicopter pad. Believing that the chopper about to take off is headed to Stavanger, were their father is stationed, Ida and Sindre hide on board, forcing reluctant 13-year-old Julia to join them. But when the aircraft instead stops at Half Moon Island to rescue the injured trapper, the stowaways get left behind before they realize their mistake.

Boe-Waal's storytelling follows in the venerable footsteps of Wonderful World of Disney adventure films, balancing realism with dramatic license, and danger with light-hearted moments of reprieve. Even the gradual way in which the kids come to understand the gravity of their situation is handled with humor. They arrive in darkness, seeking refuge from the wind and snow in the trapper's cabin, and plan on going to a neighbor for help in the morning. But when Julia opens the door, the staggering sight that greets her is a vast expanse of ice, ocean and the tail of a frolicking whale. Oops, indeed.

Crosscutting to frantic mom and dad and to search efforts back home is kept to a minimum, maintaining the focus on the isolated trio as Julia becomes the surrogate parent figure. But Sindre's fearlessness and the delightful Ida's nerdy intelligence ensure that all three have a hand in the decision-making — both the smart moves and the near-fatal mishaps. Having the children dip into journals kept by the cabin's previous occupants adds a nice element of historical and environmental awareness, as well as clueing them into possible ways out of their life-threatening dilemma.

The sheer inhospitable remoteness of the setting makes this a spectacular destination for a kids' fantasy/nightmare, and cinematographer Gaute Gunnari captures the gelid fjords, icy outcrops and glassy seas in stunning aerial shots. (Location filming was done in Canada and the Norwegian Arctic Ocean archipelago Svalbard.)

If scenes like a brush with hypothermia or a close encounter with an adult polar bear stretch the boundaries of credibility, the target audience will be unlikely to mind. The CG work used to render humans and bears in uneasy proximity is first-rate, and there's an enchanting shot of Julia sitting bundled in blankets with the aforementioned friendly husky, gazing at the technicolor magic of the Aurora Borealis.

The three young actors are enormously appealing, conveying the mutual annoyance of siblings but also their growing concern, tenderness, vulnerability and solidarity when food supplies start running out and severe weather moves in. While Operation Arctic concludes somewhat routinely by following the hairy helicopter rescue with a cheesy freeze frame of the reunited family, the thematic heart here is the courage and resilience of kids, and on that front this charming movie really delivers.

Production company: Filmkameratene

Cast: Kaisa Gurine Antonsen, Ida Leonora Valestrand Eiki, Leonard Valestrand Eike, Line Verndal, Nicolai Cleve Broch, Kristofer Hivju

Director: Grethe Boe-Waal

Screenwriter: Grethe Boe-Waal, based on the novel by Leif Hamre

Producers: John M. Jacobsen, Sveinung Golimo, Marcus Brodersen

Director of photography: Gaute Gunnari

Production designer: Are Sjaastad

Costume designer: Ilja Magga

Music: Trond Bjerknes

Editors: Anders Refn, Benjamin Sjur Blom

Casting: Merete Vold

Sales: TrustNordisk

No rating, 87 minutes.