‘Artic Tale’: Global warming goes family friendly

By | July 22, 2007

‘Artic Tale’: Global warming goes family friendly

Monday, July 23, 2007

NEW YORK: There is something unnerving about watching a polar bear stalk across floating sea ice in the Arctic and doing so from the frigid waters directly beneath the bear, the world’s largest four-legged predator.

Overhead, through ice so thin that it is transparent, plate-size paws set down, one after the other, as the half-ton animal pursues its prey.

Gripping moments like this abound in “Arctic Tale,” a new film exploring challenges facing polar bears and walruses, two familiar denizens of the icy, but warming, seas at the top of the world. But “Arctic Tale” is not a typical addition to a lengthening line of somber documentaries on dangerous or endangered wildlife.

Instead, Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson, a husband and wife who have spent the better part of two decades filming the Arctic’s hulking, reclusive and sometimes deadly mammals for television nature shows, sifted through more than 800 hours of their own footage and that of other filmmakers to assemble a fictional, family-friendly coming-of-age tale.

The film tells of the entwined lives and travails of two composite characters, Nanu, a young bear, and Seela, a walrus. Their stories are related, fable-style, by Queen Latifah, and include scenes ranging from the wrenching, when a bear cub falters and fades in a relentless blizzard, to the comic, when a heap of basking walruses erupt into a flatulent chorus after bingeing on clams. (An adult can eat 4,000 a day.)

“Arctic Tale” is clearly aimed at the same audiences that flocked to “An Inconvenient Truth,” which chronicled Al Gore’s climate campaign, and “March of the Penguins,” which followed the life cycle of rugged inhabitants from the other frozen end of the world. But Adam Leipzig, the president of National Geographic Films, which produced the film, said the project was conceived two years ago, before either documentary became a hit. The idea, he said, was to make a wildlife film “that really holds up as a movie.” (The film opens next month across the United States and in Spain; in December in the Netherlands; and in February in France.)

Some early reviews have questioned the value of assembling footage of various animals to construct artificial life stories complete with human-like villains and heroes.

Leipzig defended the approach, saying the goal was to create a new genre of “wildlife adventure” movies.

“It isn’t fictionalized in the way that ‘Transformers’ is fictionalized,” he said. “This genre is movies about the creatures of the world as they actually exist.”

Providing the characters with names, Robertson said, makes it easier to relate to the animals through the stages of their lives. The Hollywood tactics also ensure that the movie plays as a parable about adjusting to changing conditions on a warming planet.

The Arctic in recent decades has experienced sharp warming and a dramatic pullback of sea ice in summers, developments that many climate experts attribute at least in part to the buildup of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping emissions in the atmosphere. Should these trends persist, they say, later this century the Arctic Ocean could be open blue water in summers.

The shifting conditions prompted federal scientists last December to propose a “threatened” listing for polar bears under the Endangered Species Act and a fresh assessment of the species’ prospects is under way.

Polar bears have carved out a cuddly place in popular culture, but up close and personal they are ferocious predators, making the task of collecting the raw footage for the movie a daunting exercise. The challenges are amplified if the filmmaker’s goal is to chronicle the lives of these species both above and under the floating ice, which is where Robertson and Ravetch, a seasoned diver as well as wildlife cinematographer, have gone repeatedly since the early 1990s.

Often with their children in tow, they spent season after season pursuing pivotal scenes in the lives of their quarry: the tentative first foray out of a snow-covered den by two polar bear cubs; the embrace of a walrus calf, umbilical cord still trailing, in the surprisingly dexterous flippers of its mother; the tutorials in which a mother polar bear shows cubs how to reach a seal cached in layered sea ice; a chilling attack by a polar bear on a walrus.

Ravetch said he has seen Arctic conditions shift starkly since 1990, when he and Robertson started filming in the far north. Around Baffin Island in northern Canada, he said, where thick ice was the norm in springtime years ago, seas are often a dangerous slushy mess.

In one scene a mother bear and cubs are seen tentatively crossing such disintegrated ice, which gives like a waterbed underfoot.

“We’ve seen these areas getting warmer to the point where this last year by April it had been raining for three months,” Ravetch said.

Another reason for having named, if composite, animal characters, Robertson said, was “to give climate change a face.”

“Climate change is a bunch of statistics for many people,” Robertson said. “But regionally climate change is affecting not only people but animals. We wanted to really settle in on the moments and the decisions and reactions of animals when they are faced in regional areas with climate change.”

Despite the challenges of the ice retreat (the ice helps polar bears, for example, stalk and ambush seals, and is a haven for walrus pups), she and Ravetch said they were convinced that both species would endure.

“Polar bears and walruses are resourceful learners, so over the short term they’ll find new ways to hunt and live,” Ravetch said. “But they can’t do the impossible, and in the long term we really don’t know what will happen to them, which is true also for ourselves. It’s going to be a journey for every creature on the planet.”