Granted there’s a glut of environmental movies--March of the Penguins An Inconvenient Truth the upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio-narrated The 11th Hour even Happy Feet--but really it should only be the tip of the iceberg. Movies such as those above and Arctic Tale are vital so we can see how devastating the effects can be on humankind’s excess and drastic climate change. With Arctic Tale wrapping this message up into an engaging story about some of the Arctic’s primary denizens—in this case an adorable polar bear cub named Nanu and a walrus pup named Seela—keeps things close to the heart. Narrated by Queen Latifah these two youngsters have it tough from the get-go but the fact the very ice that makes up their kingdom is literally melting away makes it near impossible to survive. For example Nanu and Seela both have to venture away from their disappearing ice-bound realm swimming for days in the open sea looking for a place where they can get food and shelter. It’s heart-wrenching--and it brings the point home. The predators and the hunted actually have to band together to face this single danger and seek out new ways to live in a world where the rules have changed. Queen Latifah brings her own wry sense of humor and ghetto fabulousness to Arctic Tale. She especially comes to life when she narrates Seela’s exploits with her large extended family. Walruses are a gregarious bunch and Latifah does a great job describing the sea animals as they flop around on each other on a floating ice floe or play “pull the flipper” after eating pounds and pounds of clams. Yes even farting walruses are funny. But comparisons to Morgan Freeman who is so very commanding in March of the Penguins will abound—and unfortunately Latifah doesn’t do the job quite as effectively. March of the Penguins has raised the bar; not since Born Free has a nature film been more inspiring powerful or exquisitely shot. But maybe that’s a good thing for wildlife filmmakers who now must aspire to capture nature’s grandeur and beauty the way Penguins did. Arctic Tale’s cinematography may not be as crisp as Penguins but filmmakers Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson who--through the National Geographic Natural History unit--certainly give it their best shot to bring us Nanu and Seela’s stories. They spent the last 15 years getting to know their protagonists “very carefully ” shooting over 800 hours of soul-stirring footage in the Canadian Arctic. Most effective are the shots underneath the ice where we see Arctic life in the murky depths--not only the walruses but other extremely unique aquatic animals such as thick-billed murres birds that actually fly underwater and narwhals fascinating whales with unicorn-like horns on their heads. Overall Arctic Tale's one true message is clear: Stop global warming before it’s too late.
Ape descendant Arthur Dent (Martin Freeman) gets yanked from the Earth by best friend and alien Ford Prefect (Mos Def) seconds before a Vogon constructor fleet destroys it to make way for a hyperspace expressway. Next thing he knows Arthur is aboard the Vogon ship reading the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (voiced by Stephen Fry) and wondering where he might get some tea. But he and Ford are not in the clear: the Vogons (some of whom look like the nightmarish drawings of Ralph Steadman come to life in S&M leather) want to throw them into the vacuum of space right after they read some of the third worst poetry in the known universe. Luckily the spaceship Heart of Gold picks up the stranded hitchhikers in the nick of time. Stolen by the dim but groovy President of the Galaxy Zaphod Beeblebrox (Sam Rockwell) the ship has an Improbability Drive that causes certain mischief turning the stowaways into loveseats and later two missiles into a bowl of petunias and a sperm whale. Also onboard is doe-eyed Earth girl Tricia "Trillian" McMillan (Zooey Deschanel) who previously ditched Arthur at a costume party on Earth to satisfy her wanderlust with Zaphod. The crew then embarks on a quest to find the Ultimate Question to Life the Universe and Everything after supercomputer Deep Thought (voiced by Helen Mirren) found the answer: 42. On the run and without a home Arthur discovers that life's true meaning comes from the answers found within.
The slapstick antics and sharp dialogue evoke enough laughs to make one forget that the characters are rather one-note. Rockwell's Zaphod is a riot at first but the cheeky smile and devilish winks soon wear thin. Deschanel has little to work with playing Trillian though it's fun watching her wield a point-of-view gun on Zaphod. Mos Def mumbles some lines but does manage to act like someone from another planet. Freeman does an amiable job playing the fish-out-of-water Earthman but neglects to express the grief and bewilderment of someone who just lost his planet. Even John Malkovich as Humma Kavular--the spiritual leader of a cult awaiting the arrival of the Big Handkerchief--fails to make much of an impression in his brief appearance. Only Alan Rickman as the perpetually glum robot Marvin and Bill Nighy as the stammering planet designer Slartibartfast remain funny without becoming routine--though unfortunately Nighy only appears in the third act. A half-cocked romance between Arthur and Trillian is thrown in for good measure with the couple merely going through the motions.
Directed with considerable flair by first-timer Garth Jennings whose frantic visual style blends well with Adams' ironic wit the film looks as good as can be. CGI is used to display Adams' universe in ways never seen before: The massive concrete slabs of the Vogon fleet surrounding Earth the Heart of Gold tricked out in 1960's Formica kitsch the stark bureaucratic world of Vogosphere and the eye-popping factory floor on Magrathea are all vividly brought to life. Although the graphics of the Guide look more like Internet pop-up ads than stellar entries from the best-selling book in the galaxy the exposition from the Guide is clever and amusing though one should brush up on the material prior to viewing. Even with all the stunning visuals however the plot is still thin. Jennings and screenwriter Karey Kirkpatrick (Chicken Run) have trimmed the story--and witty banter--to its barest essentials leaving out some of the funnier bits to quicken the pace. Memorable exchanges--like the opening battle of wits between Arthur and Mr. Prosser--are reduced to a few meaningless lines while the always hinted-at love affair between Arthur and Trillian gets the full Hollywood treatment. In the past Adams who died of a heart attack in 2001 has allowed the Guide to change and progress with each incarnation so new additions--like the point-of-view gun and the cult of the Big Handkerchief--are welcomed. But the patchwork of wacky vignettes and neutered banter particularly between Arthur and Ford leave one yearning for something more meaningful.