"Arctic Tale" and the Melting of Hearts

Claire Faggioli August 10, 2007

At first glance Paramount’s promotion of their newest nature/global-warming documentary, “Arctic Tale,” seems unsurprising. The line, “From the studio that brought you ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ and ‘March of the Penguins,’” allows two popular films about nature to support a third — one which could be considered their offspring. The two films are nothing alike: “An Inconvenient Truth” is a facts-and-figures lecture peppered with Al Gore’s personal anecdotes, while “March of the Penguins” gives an anthropomorphized tale of our favorite tuxedo-ed birds. But in “Arctic Tale,” their central themes combine, and, once again, those creatures of the polar region, who’ve long been ready for their closeup, carry the global warming message on their so very cute backs.

Like many films oriented towards the children’s market, “Arctic Tale” prides itself for its family-friendly messages. The polar bear cub Nanu and walrus pup Seela serve as the surrogate human child, moving from carefree playing toddlers to serious and independent adults. Yet the film also refuses to shy away from the heart of these animals’ current struggles. “There was a big discussion of whether we should include climate change or not because we would get a lot of criticism. Sarah [Robertson, co-director] and I always felt from the start a real obligation to add that in,” says Adam Ravetch, co-director of “Arctic Tale.”

“March of the Penguins” was more vague in its approach to the impending environmental crisis, but its decision not to refer to either evolution or creationism in its film left it swirling in a political free-for all, in which both political and religious groups leapt to claim the penguins lives supported traditional family values as God-willed.

Does something about the voiceless penguin really beg for political meaning? Perhaps it is our desire to own a popular animal, to use it as the bearer of our message. Yet in doing so, the popular animal loses its political strength. While “Happy Feet” sought to teach us humans a lesson about our over-fishing and polluting ways, the adorable stars and pop-music soundtrack seemed to overshadow its message. Then came a Chanel penguin sweater marching down the runway in last month’s “Vogue,” followed by “Surf’s Up,” a film that essentially shows how much fun penguins can have with global warming (It’ll be a 24/7 tropical vacation!). It felt like a new phenomenon, a crop of children’s films that finally had a socially conscious message, becoming just another Happy Meal toy series. That was my panic until I remembered that, after we witnessed the pains of captivity experienced by some adorable animated fish in Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” clown fishes sold like hotcakes. So divorced was the figure from its subject matter that my six and eight year-old cousins named their grandfather’s Welsh Corgie puppy after the film’s eponymous star. Using animals ensures an appeal that goes beyond the political adult and reaches vaster, more profitable markets: the a-political adult and, more importantly, the child consumer.