When National Geographic Films released March of the Penguins in 2005, the studio wasn't ready to make any big claims—indeed any claims whatsoever—about rising temperatures or melting ice caps. If anything, the titular emperors could have used some global warming. Each winter, we were told, they barely survive their long waddle across the ice plains of Antarctica. We watched breeding couples huddle together to shelter their fragile eggs and saw others perish in the wind and snow. It was a family drama, a tale of survival at 58 degrees below zero. Oh, that villainous cold!
All that's turned upside down in Arctic Tale, the latest extreme ethology flick from National Geographic, which opened yesterday in limited release. Now the action takes place on the other end of the Earth, where a polar bear cub named Nanu and a walrus pup named Seela struggle to find food and safety amid balmy weather and melting sea ice. Nanu's brother succumbs to heat-induced starvation; Seela nearly drowns in unseasonably warm water. Can our heroes survive this brutal arctic summer?
Talk about a climate change. Two years ago, a preachy reference to global warming might have put off mainstream viewers. ("We have to find other ways to communicate to people about it, not just lecture them," warned March of the Penguins director Luc Jacquet.) Today, it's a selling point. The Arctic Tale Web site offers visitors green home-makeover tips, and its closing credit sequence features a montage of children spouting green-spun wisdom: "If your mom and dad buy a hybrid car, it'll be easier for polar bears to get around!" Meanwhile, the studio has established a well-publicized fund to protect arctic wildlife and formed a cross-promotional partnership with Starbucks that will include an in-store "National Day of Discussion" in mid-August. What made National Geographic produce two arctic wildlife films in rapid succession, with such different messages about global warming?
An Inconvenient Truth, for one. Al Gore's feature-length lecture on climatology from 2006 proved that green sells. (The movie became the third-highest grossing documentary of all time.) For Arctic Tale, National Geographic teamed up with Gore's producer and recruited his daughter Kristin to write the script.
But the change in tone isn't purely a function of a new marketing strategy. If anything, March of the Penguins had demonstrated that a movie that shied away from taking a stand on environmental issues could make a lot of money—it's the second-highest grossing documentary of all time. With no mention of climate change and barely a reference to evolution, the movie rode a tidal wave of right-wing support at the box office. Conservative commentators read the film as a stirring defense of traditional values, and even an affirmation of intelligent design. (How could life exist in these subfreezing temperatures without the hand of God?) Church leaders declared it a parable of Christian struggle and organized mass-bookings for their congregations. "This is the first movie they've enjoyed since 'The Passion of the Christ,' " said Michael Medved. "This is 'The Passion of the Penguins.' "
Never mind the fact that in real life many penguins swap partners every breeding season and that many captive penguins sometimes exhibit homosexual behavior. The film gives these pesky facts the same treatment it gives to global warming: not much. In fact, on second viewing, March of the Penguins does seem weirdly Christian. Morgan Freeman—the magical negro who plays God in the Almighty movies—begins his narration with a biblical tale of paradise lost: "Antarctica," he says, "used to be a tropical place, densely forested and teeming with life." The penguins are presented as a lost tribe of "stalwart souls" that must endure a series of trials as they march to the safety and warmth of the ocean. At times, the birds even come off as pro-lifers: "From now on the couple has but a single goal—keeping the egg alive … The tiny beating heart within the shell cannot survive more than a moment in the freezing air."
Could the blatant messaging of Arctic Tale be an act of atonement for a movie that ignored global warming—and whose message could so easily be co-opted? There's little chance the new film will be hijacked by the Christian right. Compared to March of the Penguins, it reads like a godless, left-wing fantasy, or an episode of "Postcards From Buster." It isn't hard to see a social agenda in the hardship story of Nanu the polar bear and her single mom. (When Dad shows up, he's an abusive thug who hoards his food and tries to kill them.) Meanwhile, Seela the walrus shares a family unit with her doting mother and an ambiguous female partner known as "Auntie." (The boy walruses turn up only to donate sperm and slip back into the sea.) And who narrates this romp through the great gay north? Instead of Morgan Freeman, we get the barely closeted Queen Latifah.
The directors of Arctic Tale, Adam Ravetch and Sarah Robertson, told me they were glad they could ditch the eco-agnosticism of March of the Penguins and replace it with a strong, clear message about global warming. As for the herds of same-sex parents, they might protest that I'm reading my own ideas into their film, just as the devout did to Penguins. Their script came from nature, they assured me, and tries to be "pure and honest." But the directors are also quick to admit that their movie is not a documentary.
First of all, the characters of Nanu and Seela aren't real—they're composites patched together from footage of many different animals, shot over the course of 15 years. Trick photography provides impossible shots of the world from the animals' point of view. And half of the grunts and growls you hear in the movie were recorded after the fact, at a zoo. "We call it more of a wildlife adventure," say Ravetch and Robertson. (The New York Times prefers "a fictional, family-friendly coming-of-age tale"; the Associated Press calls it "a bit of a cheat.")
The same could be said of March of the Penguins, which also fudged the facts to make better characters and a more accessible story line. Artful editing and piped-in sound effects turned what could have been a straightforward nature film into an anthropomorphic adventure story. "This film is not a documentary," Jacquet told the BBC in 2005, a few months before it won an Oscar for best documentary.
Perhaps "The Passion of the Penguins" should have served as a parable on the dangers of the pathetic fallacy. Arctic Tale loses credibility when it tries to put a human face on the animal face of global warming. While the story of Nanu and Seela may get kids talking about carbon emissions, it won't make them any smarter about polar bears and walruses. (Eventually—in a hundred years, perhaps—these animals will be in grave danger. For the time being, we don't know if rising temperatures are hurting or helping them.) And progressive family values look just as silly as conservative ones when they're projected onto another species. For all its good intentions, the new movie from National Geographic doesn't atone for the sins of 2005. It commits them all over again.