Despite a cuddly polar-bear protagonist and trio of scene-stealing lemming sidekicks primed for breakout status, “Norm of the North” reps an underwhelming first foray into feature-length animation for Splash Entertainment. With plot elements cobbled together from recent animated hits, the blandly executed pic might as well be titled “Happy Minions of Madagascar’s Ice Age.” Indiscriminate family auds may welcome the distraction over a holiday weekend, but “North” will quickly head south to an ancillary afterlife.
Polar bear Norm (voiced by Rob Schneider) makes an early in life discovery that he can communicate with humans. He also has human traits which apparently make him a bad hunter but an ace dancer (his signature move is dubbed the “Arctic Shake”). When frazzled single mother Vera (Heather Graham) visits Norm’s remote homeland on assignment from her land-development-mogul boss, Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong), our polar hero catches wind of a plan to turn the area into an upscale retreat for the filthy rich. And so he sets off to New York to foil the scheme — in the process becoming a celebrity sensation, bonding with Vera’s brainy environmentalist daughter, Olympia (Maya Kay), and solving the mystery of his missing grandfather (Colm Meaney).
First-time feature helmer Trevor Wall worked with Splash on multiple TV productions (including “Sabrina, Secrets of a Teenage Witch”), and his visually unimaginative style falls in line with antic small-screen toons that keep the action moving at a breakneck pace to distract from paper thin storylines. That may work, barely, in increments of 15 minutes or less, but fails to engage over 90 minutes on the big screen.
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If “Norm of the North” has a secret weapon, it turns out to be the surprisingly deft vocal turn from Schneider. At times it even sounds like he’s channeling Patton Oswalt’s endearing hero from “Ratatouille” — one of the few cases where the film’s derivative nature doesn’t feel like a shortcoming.
Schneider gets strong vocal support from Meaney as the sage old-timer and Bill Nighy as Norm’s seagull mentor Socrates, but the film’s most memorable side characters are three mute lemmings who tag along with Norm to the big city. Although they communicate only in squeaks (and the occasional fart, supplying the pic’s quota of kid-friendly bathroom humor), the indestructible furballs are always on hand for a frantic bit of physical comedy.
There’s a faint message here — something about protecting the environment from big business — but nothing meant to get in the way of the film’s real mission to create a feature franchise for Splash. It’s a goal that might seem more attainable for a less forgettable product.