Everybody falls in love with the up-close-and-personal footage of a mother polar bear and her two cubs, but my favorite sequence comes as the mom investigates a robot-controlled IMAX camera artfully concealed to resemble a floating chunk of ice.
The bear, not fooled by this subterfuge for a second, hauls the contraption out of the water — all this activity caught by a second camera — and casually pries the bits apart. The final act? The bear bats the now exposed, globe-shaped camera cover like a beach ball, before finally crushing it to a sad mechanical death.
Pretty darn funny.
And also quite illuminating: Clearly, polar bears aren’t merely ferocious — when necessary — they’re also ferociously intelligent.
“To the Arctic” is the newest awesome IMAX documentary from the filmmaking team of Greg and Shaun MacGillivray, who previously brought us “The Living Sea,” “Dolphins” and “Grand Canyon Adventure: River at Risk.” As might be surmised from the titles, MacGillivray films lean toward environmental activism, and this one is no different; “To the Arctic” is an unabashed plea for the world to pay more attention to the implacable effects of global warming.
The cause can be debated from now until doomsday — which, if naysayers continue to rule the argument, may well be the case — but the phenomenon itself is an established, observable fact that has a direct and dire impact on the polar bears, caribou, walruses, seals and birds profiled in this breathtaking film.
As quite clearly depicted in this film, ice platforms — from which polar bears traditionally hunt seals — once extended for miles over the ocean. That’s no longer true; the earlier the ice melts, the more restricted the bears’ territory becomes, giving them limited access and less time to find seals, and farther to swim without rest.
The latter is hardest on cubs, which lack their mothers’ strength and stamina. We watch a mother and cub set out on just such a journey — a possible “journey to nowhere,” as narrator Meryl Streep calmly informs us — and when the mother eventually makes landfall, she’s alone.
Polar bears may have become the most visible symbol of such temperature-enhanced peril, but they’re by no means alone. The receding ice also impacts seal colonies seeking a stable place to bear and raise their young; caribou on their annual migratory trek confront once-manageable rivers that now have become rising torrents, with currents that sweep away the youngest members of the herds.
Fortunately, this film isn’t exclusively doom and gloom. The opening credits are a blast, making the best use of 3D effects that I’ve ever seen, as each on-screen name — rendered in chunks of ice — explodes directly toward the camera, showering the viewer with shards. Even seasoned 3D fans will be inclined to duck.
The opening panorama shot is breathtaking, as we slowly descend to race alongside the leading edge of a polar glacier that extends as far as the eye can see. Massive waterfalls, fed by the melting ice above, pour from the top of the glacier into the ocean. The sense of scale is deceptive; at first, from a distance, the glacier seems a “reasonable” size … but as we pull closer, the mountains of ice keep growing. Simply stunning.
At another point, the IMAX camera is plonked onto a sled being pulled by a team of dogs; the result feels like the best motion-control ride ever designed, as we race at dog’s-eye level across the tundra.
Then, too, watching polar bears swim is far more dramatic from beneath these huge beasts, with their hubcap-size front paws quite efficiently churning the water. Kudos to underwater cameramen Bob Cranston and Howard Hall, who dove just a bit deeper than the bears usually venture, and focused upward. We can’t help feeling nervous, while marveling at this footage, since Streep has just informed us that polar bears are the only mammals that will actively hunt man.
Similar underwater shots of a walrus colony are equally dramatic, particularly when a curious baby swims directly up to the camera and bonks its nose against the lens protector. But nothing compares to the footage obtained amid subfreezing arctic brine, when a diver brings the 400-pound submersible IMAX camera down through a hole bored in the four-foot surface ice.
“This experience, as risky as cave diving,” MacGillivray explains, “has the added danger that beyond 45 minutes, your hands will freeze stiff, your brain will numb to a crawl, and you’d better find the exit … and soon.”
The film’s undisputed stars, though, are the aforementioned mother polar bear and her twin cubs. As recounted by director of photography Brad Ohlund, who introduced the film prior to its Sacramento premiere last week, the filmmaking team spent a month aboard the 130-foot icebreaker MS Havsel. Polar bears are, by nature, wary of any intrusions; footage of their behavior usually is obtained only with long-distance lenses.
But this particular mother seemed unconcerned by the ship’s presence, perhaps — as Ohlund suggested — being smart enough to surmise that the massive vessel might help discourage roving hungry male polar bears, looking to kill and eat the cubs.
Our reward is intimate footage that shows the mother romping with her cubs, nursing them — while reclining, as if seated in an icy chair — and giving them a lesson in seal hunting. The cubs rough-house, explore the ice floes and play in the snow as their mother watches, all the while testing the air for danger.
“To the Arctic” is scored by longtime MacGillivray associate Steve Wood, who has perhaps too strong a fondness for choral enhancements. The soundtrack also includes several songs by Paul McCarthy, each cleverly employed to augment the emotion of a given scene: “Little Willow” frames a caribou mother bonding with her new calf; “Mr. Bellamy” introduces a montage of walrus antics; and the mother polar bear wrestles with her twins as “I’m Carrying” fills the impressive Esquire theater speaker system.
The majesty of the Arctic panorama is amplified by The Beatles’ “Because,” which lends a solemn note to the already inspiring footage.
Yes, “To the Arctic” is propaganda filmmaking, a fact the MacGillivrays certainly don’t conceal. The documentary is a highly visible element of their planned 20-year multi-platform ocean media campaign, designed to open minds and win hearts much the way Jacques Cousteau’s television specials did in the 1960s and ’70s.
The message certainly doesn’t interfere with this film’s many delights, and it’s hard to complain when advocacy cinema is produced with such talent, love and dedication.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com
4.5 stars; rated G, and suitable for all ages
STARRING: Meryl Streep (narrator), polar bears, caribou, seals, walruses and other critters