For all the inevitable comparisons to March Of The Penguins, Arctic Tale isn't quite a nature documentary. While it appears to follow the life cycle of two individual animals, a polar-bear cub dubbed "Nanu" and a walrus calf named "Seela," from birth through maturity, both animals are composite characters, assembled to fit a fictionalized but information-packed narrative. More to the point, husband-and-wife directing team Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson, who shot much of the footage over more than a decade in the Arctic, are aiming for a playful, casual, child-friendly tone, and their scriptwriters (Disney screenwriter Linda Woolverton, doc-script veteran Mose Richards, and Futurama writer Kristin Gore) pack Queen Latifah's intrusive voiceover narration with sassy "jokes" and animal anthropomorphizations, as well as the enforced narrative.
So where March Of The Penguins was stately and serious, Arctic Tale features Latifah commenting on walruses' "sweet 'staches" and talking about how they're "all up in each other's business" because "that's just how they roll." And then there's the fart montage. It's a pity, because apart from the forcibly bright-eyed-and-bad-assed tone, Arctic Tale is a gorgeous film, full of astonishing footage: tiny baby polar bears clambering around inside their birthing cave, a walrus pup lost at sea with her anxious protectors in pursuit, an explosive confrontation between the two species. Even more astonishing is the scope of the details about the animals' life cycles: The references to three-day clam hunts, six-month fasts, and 2,000-mile journeys all give the impression of simple lives where simple actions nonetheless stretch out over vast periods.
But the directors (who call Arctic Tale a "wildlife adventure" rather than a documentary) make the point that life is becoming less simple in the Arctic, due to global warming which lengthens the summer, eradicates the ice on which the animals live, and shrinks their territory, causing competition and starvation. This message is delivered with restraint and without politics, accusations, or exhortations—at least until the end, when a crowd of cute kids start shouting out energy-saving tips: plant trees, drive hybrids, etc. Like so much about the script, it's grating, cloying, and crashingly unsubtle, and it goes a long way toward erasing the warm feelings and reverent awe inspired by the images of a walrus cradling her newborn calf in her flippers.