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By Stina Chyn | September 15, 2007

Theatrical trailers that I have seen of Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson’s documentary “Artic Tale” mentioned something along the lines of “from the people who brought to you ‘March of the Penguins’.”

Film Threat’s own Ellen Marshall and Jeremy Mathews praised “March of the Penguins.” I have yet to watch this animal film, but as a fan of wildlife pictures and admirer of National Geographic’s productions, I didn’t hesitate to see “Arctic Tale.”

The film’s official site offers the following summary (which I include in full for its political implications):

From National Geographic Films, the people who brought you MARCH OF THE PENGUINS and Paramount Classics, the studio that brought you AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH, ARCTIC TALE is an epic adventure that explores the vast world of the Great North. The film follows the walrus, Seela and the polar bear, Nanu, on their journey from birth to adolescence to maturity and parenthood in the frozen Arctic wilderness. Once a perpetual winter wonderland of snow and ice, the walrus and the polar bear are losing their beautiful icebound world as it melts from underneath them.

Queen Latifah provides the voice-over in this documentary. While I respect her contributions to hip-hop and feminism, her voice is too warm and cozy for the crystalline environs of the North Pole. Morgan Freeman evidently could not lend his talents to this project (as he did in “March of the Penguins”)—were Kristin Scott Thomas, Ed Harris, and Angela Bassett unavailable as well?

Consistent with the remarkable cinematography characteristic of a National Geographic film, “Artic Tale” is beautifully photographed. The accompanying musical tracks, however, are not so impressive. I realize that National Geographic is deviating from its made-for-PBS formula by highlighting the narrative inherent in a presentation of arctic animals trying to live another season, but “Arctic Tale” is not “Happy Feet.” There’s no need to pair “We Are Family” with a montage of walrus antics.

The film has a running time of approximately ninety-minutes but feels much shorter than a one-hour segment of “Nature.” I suspect it has something to do with the difference between television programming and feature filmmaking with respect to documenting animal behavior. Episodes of “Nature” are arguably more like vignettes, whereas feature films adhere to conventional plot structure. Additionally, identification with and not just sympathy for the animal “protagonists” must ostensibly be facilitated by any means necessary. Thus, voice-over narration would include phrases like “unaware of the danger ahead” and “struggles to survive” as well as “loves to eat” and “mating season.”

Editing techniques such as parallel editing, cross-cutting, and shot-reverse-shot are apparently not enough to convey or create suspense and conflict. Given the prey-predator game that animals must play on a daily basis, it shouldn’t take long before a research team or a film crew could witness or capture survival stories. It’s disappointing when an endeavor to make a documentary released in the theatre necessitates the incorporation of storybook narration and cheesy songs. What makes “Arctic Tale” unique in this matter is the political undercurrent. Nanu, Seela, and their kin are facing a new threat: human behavior. Poaching is not the culprit this time. Instead, it’s global warming. The release of this documentary coincides with recent studies that indicate the Artic Ocean is dwindling at alarmingly fast rates.

As “Artic Tale” unfolds, covering two to three years in one hour and a half, it becomes apparent that the film is ultimately about rising temperatures and the toll they take on animals that are helpless to stop the change. Putting an animal’s face to global warming is conceptually smart and would’ve been more effective if it were applied to other species in other climate zones too.

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