“To the Arctic 3D,” the latest IMAX nature documentary from Warner Brothers, stars Meryl Streep as a real live polar bear.
OK, I made that up.
But do any of us doubt that she could have played the mama bear if she had wanted to, with a growl every bit as convincing as her Oscar-winning Margaret Thatcher? Instead, Streep merely narrates this film — straight on, doing her best with pious lines aimed at Prius owners — and we are left to wonder what she might have made of a script that was a better match for the unforced drama of its cinematography.
“To the Arctic” is a visually dazzling movie. It gives us icebergs gushing with waterfalls cruelly made more majestic by the ice’s rapid melting. It documents polar bears in all kinds of conditions and from just about every vantage point imaginable, including under water and under siege. (Remember the old TV commercial with the gorilla batting around a suitcase? Polar bears apparently feel the same way about IMAX cameras.) Most impressive, this is a movie that is as committed to showing the bloody aftermath of a mama bear sneaking up on a seal as it is to capturing inevitably adorable bear cubs at play.
With photography that vivid, you don’t need to be told to be awed, or delighted, or saddened, or inspired to act. You don’t need flowery, pedantic narration. And you most definitely don’t need choirs of children and Paul McCartney songs in the same documentary — ever.
Director Greg MacGillivray is a veteran cinematographer and pioneer of giant-screen innovations (his MacGillivray Freeman Productions, formed with the late Jim Freeman, has nearly three dozen IMAX films to its credit). “To the Arctic” begins with the title rendered in the style of chiseled ice, which breaks apart and flies at you in 3-D. Later, MacGillivray references his surf-doc roots with insets of vintage and contemporary footage displayed in hokey, homemade-looking frames. If those devices lack subtlety, that’s in keeping with the barrage of ominous facts and figures employed to warn, for example, that the Arctic is warming twice as fast as any other region on Earth and could have no sea ice left by summer 2050.
It’s heavy stuff. And it should be. But more storytelling and less preaching would have served those messages better. Proof of that comes when the flat narrative finds its way to some dramatic moments in the life of a female and her cubs. In the most riveting scenes, they are stalked by a starving male. The disturbing sequence, though it ends without bloodshed this time, offers a tense and unforgettable illustration of the gravity of climate change. It needs no script or soundtrack. Even La Streep knows enough to lay low while it plays out.
Of the two nature documentaries opening Friday, Disney’s “Chimpanzee” is by far the more entertaining, whether or not it’s the more important one. It’s fully fueled by the kind of intimate narrative drama glimpsed in that predatory polar bear clip. And it understands that a movie too focused on force-feeding you its agenda is bound to come across as (sorry, but it must be said) overbearing, no matter how beautifully it’s packaged.