Do Wild Animals Speak Human?
In the Oscar winning documentary March of the Penguins, director Luc Jacquet definitely lets penguins be penguins. Jacquet left the anthropomorphizing of that endearing species to the artists who created the surprisingly clever Oscar winning narrative animation feature, Happy Feet.
Of course, Happy Feet‘s directors, George Miller and Warren Coleman, had their computer generated humanoid penguins tap into some serious issues about the environment and about human impact on it--but in that fairly elliptical, entertainment-first way that PG-rated blockbuster animation features do.
But documentaries are different. Or are they?
Meet Nanu and Seela
Now, releasing theatrically this week, along comes Arctic Tale, another animal-centric documentary that uses unadulterated authentic footage to give us intimate close up views of a walrus pup and polar bear cub. With these lovable tykes leading the way, the film swims directly and deeply into disturbing environmental issues-- like global warming and pollution and, most especially, the shrinking arctic ice.
Arctic Tale's thrilling vérité footage never suggests that the film’s two pivotal characters are anything other than untamed creatures of the wild whose pressing imperative and overwhelming struggle is simply to survive. Do we see that they are smart? Yes. Canny? Yes. Human? No.
Yet, the voice over narration surely suggests--subtly, but persistently--that these two cute critters are, well, just like little girls. For one thing, they’re given cute names--the bear is Nanu, the walrus is Seela. Cute, right? And memorable. You might even pick those names for your own kids--or adopt them as nicknames. Are we being a bit primed for anthropomorphism?
Coming of Age
As Nanu and Seela grow up quickly, we observe their rites of passage through infant antics, adolescent angst, and acting out in relationship to their parents, siblings and other inhabitants of their icy realm. And, we see them learn how to hunt and survive in the natural world.
With the narrator guiding us, we witness behavior that certainly seems to parallel our own. Seela and the community of walruses hug and nuzzle each other in ways that seem motivated by something like--well, okay, I'll say it--human love. Nanu seems to become attached to a tagalong Arctic fox, whom the narrator--the familiar and friendly voice of Queen Latifah--refers to as Nanu’s friend.
But most important for the delivery of the film's message--and it does have one--is that we see how these appealing little girls, while winning our hearts and engaging our very human emotions, are getting hungry, hungrier, and hungriest.
In fact, that friendly narrator's voice actually informs us that Nanu and Seela are starving. Nanu, we see, has actually lost her sibling to starvation. Nanu might even wind up eating Seela. Now, that would be tough to watch.
It's by setting up your emotional bias that directors Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson let you know and make you care that the Arctic ice cap is shrinking at an alarming rate and that arctic creatures--including our girlfriends--are severely endangered as a result of the changing environment.
Bringing Home An Inconvenient Truth
We see Nanu and Seela, following their survival instincts, swim far out to sea, leaving their familiar ice in search of a more stable land mass where they will, hopefully, find more food.
We don’t know whether they will make it.
Arctic Tale plays like March of the Penguins meets Happy Feet in the land of An Inconvenient Truth. The anthropomorphic innuendo of the narration (co-written, coincidentally, by Kristen Gore, who is indeed the daughter of Al An Inconvenient Truth Gore) renders their plight that much more heartbreaking. This is one documentary where the application of anthropomorphism works uncharacteristically well.
The film hasn't spawned its own merchandize (yet), but perhaps one day you'll see Arctic Tale-labeled plush and cuddly Nanus and Seelas living on the shelf at FAO Schwartz, and they'll remind you of the plight of the real critters on the Arctic ice shelf-- or what remains of it. Arctic Tale is a clarion call to action.