Good intentions on ice

From the moment a white-fuzzed, big-eyed polar bear cub noses her way out of the snowy landscape of Arctic Tale, you can almost hear the flurry of pens over at Disney and Dreamworks angling for the next animated derivative. Such is the instant allure of the new nature documentary’s scene-stealers.

Previews for Arctic Tale boast that the film is by the same people responsible for the Oscar-winning March of the Penguins — meaning that both are backed by National Geographic. Co-directors Susan Robertson and Adam Ravetch make their first foray into the cineplex with Arctic Tale after creating several television documentaries on the region. The Penguins plug, however, invites comparisons, and let’s just say polar-bear romance is nowhere near as charming as a penguin pair-up.

The sumptuous cinematography that made a graceful dance of a march, the traditional score, and a gripping story of nurturing fathers, adventurous mothers, and familial devotion in March of the Penguins hit all the right notes upon its release two years ago. Shot at the opposite end of the world, Arctic Tale explores a broader spectrum of life and the trials of an area where Global Warming trends are most apparent. Broader, in this case, translates to looser as well.

Clunky editing and tight shots more suitable for the small screen often make harrowing moments feel contrived here. A solo image, for example, of a stalking polar bear abruptly cuts to a solo close-up of a cowering baby seal and the impression that the two are actually reacting to one another is lost. A grab-bag of music — ranging from Kool and the Gang’s “Celebrate” to Aimee Mann — plays along to quick jumps between species and their plights. This soundtrack prohibits Arctic Tale from achieving cinematic grandeur.

If Arctic Tale is broader, it is also more purposeful. Robertson and Ravetch frequently punctuate the film with heartbreaking moments, such as a scene featuring a walrus calf grappling with a diminishing ice floe as the ocean swells untempered because ice barriers have melted three months too soon. A polar-bear cub wobbles from starvation on an endless foraging trip until it can no longer hold itself up. A snow fox paces as it surveys the hunting ground that has become a broken, impassable ice field. It’s when the film takes these powerfully ominous turns that Arctic Tale is at its best.

Since the birth of Knut the polar bear at the Berlin Zoo, and the introduction of the Polar Bear Protection Act in Congress last December, the bears have been slowly blipping onto the world’s radar, and Arctic Tale aims to tighten the focus. The film ends with a montage of children offering tips to curtail Global Warming and ways to learn more about the dangers facing arctic wildlife. Though there is plenty of substance here for even the mildest nature lover to be engaged, Arctic Tale is not quite the cinematic gem its Penguins predecessor proved to be.