After the surprising box-office success of several wildlife documentaries like "Winged Migration" (2001) and "March of the Penguins" (2005), movie studios started taking the animal world more seriously. Although the films "Madagascar" (2005), "The Wild" (2006), "Happy Feet" (2006), and "Surf's Up" (2007), "Madagascar 2" (2008), and "Kung Fu Panda" (2008) all featured animated animal antics, you can see how popular the genre became. Which brings us to Paramount's "Arctic Tale" (2007), the real-life animal movie from the same "National Geographic" folks who brought us "March of the Penguins." Only this time, rather than Paramount presenting the movie on DVD or HD DVD as they already have, it's on Blu-ray.
"Arctic Tale" and "March of the Penguins" share a lot in common in terms of showing us the struggles and hardships of wildlife in opposite frozen poles. Just don't expect the same kind of poetic vision you saw in "Penguins," the same inspiring action, or the same imposing narration.
The new movie tells two stories simultaneously, alternating between the two. The first story involves a newly born polar bear cub named Nanu, her twin brother, and her mother. The second story involves a newly born walrus pup named Seela and her auntie. We follow both of these young animals through the first couple of years of their lives as hunger, predators, and global warming threaten their existence.
Here's the thing, though: The filmmakers are not content merely to film the creatures in their native habitat. Instead, they invent hazardous undertakings for the animals, for which they provide a spoken narrative. As the filmmakers clearly staged these episodes, even unto naming the animals, the film is not exactly a documentary. And since most of the episodes are rather innocuous, they're not exactly riveting adventures, either. At least not for adults. So, I'd guess the movie works best for younger children, who might not know much about wildlife or the warming threats to our world.
Be that as it may, there are moments in the film that children might find unsettling, like the sight of animals eating one another (polar bears hunt and eat seals, after all) and visions of death in the animals' families. Did the filmmakers really allow a death by starvation right in front of them simply for the sake of getting it on film? I don't think so. As I say, much of it seems staged for maximum cinematic effect.
Queen Latifah narrates the film, and her voice is sweet and comforting. Still, it doesn't carry the authority of Morgan Freeman, who did "Penguins" and simply has the best narrative voice in the business. Now that I think about it, this might be a matter of Latifah being an ideal choice for kids and Morgan for adults.
Here's the way Latifah explains the Arctic in her preface: "...to most of us, it seems a frozen wasteland, but for creatures designed for astonishing cold, it's always been a paradise on Earth." Unfortunately for the animals, as the movie goes on to point out, this paradise is receding, evaporating, melting away like never before, thanks to the actions of Mankind.
The best thing "Arctic Tale" has going for it is its incredible photography, some of the scenes breathtakingly beautiful, particularly the underwater shots. Then, too, the filmmakers capture the attractiveness of the animals in all their natural splendor. The bears are especially handsome, the arctic foxes are adorable, and even the walruses, as ungainly beasts as ever there were, the filmmakers give a due respect. Plus, the filmmakers contrast the solitary ways of the polar bear with the close family ties of the walruses. Therefore, if you add in the global-warming element, one certainly can't fault the film for its efforts to educate and enlighten. OK, I'm not sure we needed a whole scene showing a herd of walruses burping and farting, but, again, this is a film aimed at youngsters, and such realities are sure to please them.
Overall, "Arctic Tale" is not all that much different from many of the better programs "National Geographic" airs on its cable channel (and in high def if you can get it). While "Arctic Tale" is a sincere, well-intentioned attempt to reveal what life is like in the Arctic and how great a threat Man is to so many of his fellow creatures, and while parts of the movie are wonderfully attractive to look at, "Arctic Tale" doesn't really offer a whole lot an adult hasn't seen or heard before.
Paramount engineers present the picture in what I assume to be the same 1080p, MPEG4/AVC transfer as the HD DVD, and a screen size matches the movie's 1.85:1 theatrical-release aspect ratio. You have to remember, though, that the filmmakers shot the movie on location under decidedly unfriendly conditions in the north polar regions. One should not expect the most perfect footage, and one notices some inevitable grain, particularly evident in semi-dark and stormy scenes. Moreover, object delineation is a tad soft, even in high definition. Nevertheless, color depth looks good, when there are colors besides black, white, and blue to watch, and the picture quality is probably as good as the original print, with some shots that are truly spectacular.
Here's the major change between the HD DVD and the new Blu-ray: The HD DVD used Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 and the Blu-ray uses Dolby TrueHD 5.1. In any case, it's still a soundtrack that includes little more than Queen Latifah's narration, some background music, and the occasional grunt, groan, and belch of the animals. The audio track conveys these sounds in a smooth, uniform manner, the surrounds coming to life during an Arctic blizzard that nicely swirls around one's head. It's in no way remarkable, but it's all that's needed.
The BD's primary extras are also the same as on the HD DVD: a pair of standard-definition featurettes. There is "Making of Arctic Tale," twenty-four minutes, showing how the filmmakers and local peoples helped put the production together. Then there is "Are We There Yet? World Adventure: Polar Bear Spotting," seven minutes, wherein kids go in search of polar bears in the wild, via a tour bus.
In addition, you'll find a theatrical trailer in high def; fifteen scene selections; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired. As always with a Paramount Blu-ray, there are pop-up menus, bookmarks, and a guide to elapsed time.
The movie ends with the anticipated warning: "The Arctic summer sea ice has shrunk by 20 percent in recent decades. If the current trend continues, the Arctic Ocean could be virtually ice-free in the summer of 2040," followed during the closing credits by pleas from several children to save our Earth. It's all very noble, but it's nothing most adults haven't heard time and again. Anyway, as I say, the movie is mainly for the benefit of children, a good thing because the world will soon enough be in their hands. Every little bit can't hurt.