Adam Ravetch and his wife Sarah Robertson spent 15 years filming Arctic wildlife in its harsh and glorious habitat. In Arctic Tale, the results of that labor of love have been edited down to 96 minutes and arranged (somewhat artificially) to tell the story of a polar bear, Nanu, and a walrus, Seela.
The movie is aimed at children, particularly the kind of kid who is enthralled by the cable channel Animal Planet. These kids have a more realistic view of the interdependence of life on earth than we did at that age, educated by things like Disney's Bambi. So, although Arctic Tale doesn't go for the full horror treatment (I haven't quite gotten over the moment in Winged Migration where a big mower relentlessly advances on a tiny peeping bird), neither does it look away from some bracing truths.
I wonder if the Animal Planet Kid is becoming a recognizable demographic; in Evan Almighty, the youngest son in the family is ever piping up with factoids gleaned from its shows. My companion at the screening, granddaughter Hannah, is another fan, and at 6 she already knows a lot more about wildlife than I do. As an adorable pair of polar babies and their mom emerged from their icy winter den, I was surprised at how dark their fur was—more brown than white. Though I hadn't said a word, Hannah whispered, "In the spring, polar bears are brown; they're white in winter." Oh.
After we're introduced to Nanu and her mother and twin brother, we meet Seela, a baby walrus. Seela will be raised by her mother and another female walrus, referred to as "Auntie." It wasn't clear whether walrus babies routinely have two mommies, but in general walruses stick together, forming large, cohesive herds. Since they weigh from 1800 to 2600 pounds, they're not particularly lively while on land, but lie scattered and piled on the rocks haphazardly, like clothes on a teenager's floor. I was just thinking that the tusks look like a nuisance and wondering what they were for when Hannah whispered, "Did you know walruses use their tusks to get out of the water?" Gee.
Things are not so chummy among polar bears, and one of the first things we learn is that the mother must protect her babies from adult male bears, who will not hesitate to attack her cubs. Some children may be troubled at the thought that, not only is there no polar daddy to help raise Nanu, but daddy bears actually kill baby bears. Overall, things are pretty tough for Nanu's little family. They travel far in search of food without success, and eventually the cold and hunger are too much for her brother. He collapses in the snow, and we see him lying motionless, his face soon crusted with ice. Before long, it's time for Nanu to leave her mother's side and enter solitary, self-supporting adulthood. The mom accomplishes this by growling at Nanu and driving her away, another moment kids may find difficult to watch and hard to understand.
So far the film has been tracking lives of polar bears and walruses separately, but now the stories come together unexpectedly and poignantly. A male polar bear, on the verge of starvation, surprises Seela's family on an island rock. As he lunges toward a baby, "Auntie" goes to save it, and ends up "making the ultimate sacrifice," as the narration says (which may be putting it too obscurely for children). Nanu joins the feast, and "a single death preserves the lives of many." This is unexpected but realistic, and presented in a way that is unequivocal without being gory.