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It's a not-a-doc -- and truth is inconvenient

July 22, 2007|Sheigh Crabtree and Gina Piccalo | Special to The Times

IN "Arctic Tale," a starving young polar bear swims 200 miles in open water looking for food, ultimately settling for leftover walrus on a rocky island, while a lost wee walrus floats adrift, squinting pitifully against the cold.

Dubbed "a wildlife adventure," the film's aim is to inspire kids in the same way the Oscar-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" moved many adults. In place of alarming PowerPoint slides and dire statistics, "Arctic Tale" makes its point with infant animals in peril.

But the Paramount Classics and National Geographic Films release from wildlife filmmakers Sarah Robertson and Adam Ravetch, which opens in two theaters in Los Angeles on Wednesday before going wide Aug. 17, isn't the straight-ahead nature documentary it appears to be.

As part of a new generation of socially involved filmmakers, Robertson, 41, and Ravetch, 44, a husband-and-wife team, wanted to spread the word about global warming to the broadest possible audience. So they've blended genres in "Arctic Tale," dressing up authentic, close-range footage of animals in the wild with a few pop songs, a foxy sidekick, some scatological-leaning jokes and a Disney-esque narrative. They took a decade of footage of walruses and polar bears and created two composite characters, Nanu the polar bear and Seela the walrus. Their efforts were so effective, in fact, that test audiences thought they were watching an especially riveting documentary -- and some were disappointed to hear otherwise.

"Most wildlife docs are encyclopedic examples of this animal here, beautiful footage that gives information," Robertson said. "Whereas we were very careful to tell the story of Nanu and Seela, only. We were making a movie only to move people."

"We always said that if science fiction wasn't [already being] used, it would be a great title for this genre," Ravetch said. "Because it is 'nature' fiction."

"Arctic Tale" opens with tiny Nanu snuffling her way out of a snow cave. (Because the filmmakers shot with long, non-invasive lenses, the intimate sounds of snow crunching were oftentimes created later in postproduction with corn starch doubling for snow, Ravetch explained.) Newborn Seela is nearby in her mother's arms floating in icy waters, touching her flippers to her mother's face, memorizing distinctive features. It's real, at close range and it's touching footage. Then the storytelling begins.

Nanu and Seela are born around the same time, as "storyteller" Queen Latifah intones, and their stories unfold over eight years on shrinking ice floes, disrupted feeding seasons and a diminishing food supply. There is, of course, tragedy along the way. But despite some harrowing dramatic moments, the film ends with both animals as adolescents pairing up and having pups of their own.

As the credits roll, children describe ways the audience can help stop global warming, by turning off the lights, using less water, and making their parents buy hybrid cars.

"The climate issue changed us," Ravetch said. "We were on this island staking out this situation and the ice was coming back later and later in the year. We had the nuts and bolts of the story, but the climate change shifted it. That's when we felt a real responsibility to covering it in our movie."

The babies' attempts to survive a melting habitat are dramatized with crafty editing, a soundtrack of poignant pop songs, Latifah's "storytelling" (as opposed to nonfiction narration) and a library of cuddly and treacherous moments that audiences might think chronicle the first eight years in the lives of Seela and Nanu.

Credible wildlife organizations and environmentally aware corporations have come onboard to support the movie. The Sierra Club sponsored "Arctic Tale's" outdoor premiere at the L.A. Film Festival last month and has invited its members to other screenings around the country. Starbucks will promote the film in its 6,800 stores in the U.S. and Canada, and two days before the film's release, the company will host lectures by noted environmentalists in major U.S. cities. National Geographic Films produced and financed the feature, the first of what it envisions as a new genre of wildlife filmmaking.

The hybrid's M.O. is to take natural events and dress them up for mass consumption, and the effect is not unlike boosting brown rice with a little nacho cheese sauce, or customizing a Prius for drift-racing.

"It's absolutely not a traditional documentary," said Adam Leipzig, president of the company's film division. "Traditional documentaries are not entertaining enough anymore and don't really appeal to a wide enough audience. We really are trying to expand and create new genres of storytelling."

Seela and Nanu are composites of several animals Ravetch and Robertson recorded over a decade while working in the Arctic, freelancing for BBC TV and National Geographic TV, among other outlets.

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