As documentaries on the overworked topic of climate change go, “To the Arctic” has a pretty good hook. Centered around a family of polar bears struggling to survive amid increasingly iceless terrain, this latest eco-opus from prolific Imax auteur Greg MacGillivray alternates between intimate wildlife saga and majestic views of the North Pole, offering strong visual compensations for its meandering structure, syrupy tone and excessive sampling of Paul McCartney’s back catalog. Meryl Streep’s narration should help this giantscreen kidpic encounter a warm reception.
In the lengthy opening shot, d.p. Brad Ohlund’s 70mm camera pans across a massive ice shelf, taking detailed note of the numerous waterfalls positioned evenly along the perimeter like drainpipes. The image is a marvel and a warning, and Streep, reading scribe-editor Stephen Judson’s text, soon articulates the global-warming threat in concrete terms.
Conjuring a tone somewhere between “awww” and “tsk,” the docu describes how polar bears in particular have been threatened by the rapid thinning of ice floes, making it all the harder for them to hunt seals (whose opinions on climate change go curiously unsolicited). Of the eight months they spent shooting at the North Pole, MacGillivray and his crew devoted one month to tracking a mother bear and her two cubs. Though at times visible in the background, the filmmakers maintain an observational distance as the bears try to survive in a wilderness whose resources, already hospitable to only a select few, are becoming increasingly scarce.
A few engrossing scraps of narrative emerge, particularly a sustained long take of mother and cubs trying to outrun a male bear with no compunction about feeding on the young. It’s a moment that might warrant some post-screen discussion between parents and tots about the realities of the food chain; ditto a hunting scene that, while discreetly filmed, is followed by the less-than-cute sight of the cubs’ white faces smeared with seal blood.
“To the Arctic” is strongest when it views its subjects’ behavior with this sort of detachment, and it does resist the temptation to anthropomorphize; the cubs are as adorable as one would expect, but the blissful shots of them at play feel natural and unmanipulated. With footage this intrinsically watchable, the pic scarcely needs the too-easy emotional cues supplied by seven McCartney songs (that’s roughly one every six minutes), which, like the informative but on-the-nose narration, go for blunt overstatement in a place that feels particularly suited to silence.
Brief digressions into the impact of global warming on walruses and caribou feel needlessly tacked-on, and the 3D effect is less apparent in Ohland’s imagery than in the assaultive opening titles, which make use of an exploding-ice typeface and shattered-glass sound effects more appropriate to a horror film.