The Arctic is melting out from under the paws (and flippers) of some of the world's most magnificent animals, a message cloaked in two unassailable truths -- motherhood and cute babies -- in the new Imax film, To the Arctic 3D. Yes, it's another warning about global warming, but this one comes with some astonishing cinematography, majestic landscapes and the chance to see a polar bear dismantling a robotic camera to see what makes it tick. It's a rare case of nature defeating technology.
First the good news: Veteran Imax director Greg McGillivray (Everest, The Living Sea) takes us to the far reaches of the not-so-frozen North to witness the lives of bears, caribou and a memorable colony of walruses. It's a world that is increasingly subject to devastation caused by global warming, but in the meantime, a walrus is a most excellent animal -- in close-up it resembles the Popeye character Wimpy, except with, like, no feet -- given to napping on its back and emitting snores that rattle the theatre seats: Just imagine the man of the house on a Sunday afternoon in front of the TV, but with tusks.
Polar bears, meanwhile, are in a class of their own, and To the Arctic ends with a compelling drama about a mother and two seven-month-old cubs making their way across the ice floes. They're seeking seals to eat and trying to dodge a predatory male -- who will turn to baby bears for food during hard times -- but still finding time to snuggle and, in the case of the cubs, wrestle, roll across the snow, and occasionally chew on their own legs. It's pretty well too cute for words.
Polar bears are the descendants of brown bears who came to the Arctic 150,000 years ago and evolved white fur and long snouts, one of the several factoids that has been slipped into To the Arctic -- in the authoritative narration of Meryl Streep -- as part of a potpourri of impressions about the changing landscape. The main message is the dangers of greenhouse gases to: a herd of caribou shown migrating across dangerously melting tundra so the mothers can get to a safe birthing ground in Alaska; the lazy but camera-shy walruses (one of them bumps into an underwater lens like some overweight Hollywood star attacking the paparazzi); and mostly, the bears, which face impossible swims between ice floes because of the increased melting.
"The polar bear is on thin ice," Streep says: Sea ice is melting so rapidly, it's estimated there won't be any at all by 2050.
The message, as important as it is, threatens to overwhelm To the Arctic, but the filmmakers wisely put it into the context of characters we care about: the animals. Polar bears are difficult to find and photograph, but the camera crew manages to capture underwater footage that shows them paddling through the icy ocean, and even chasing a robot camera hidden in a fake chunk of ice that the bears smash apart, as curious as cats.
Much of this is choreographed to music by Paul McCartney, including the songs "Because" and "Maybe I'm Amazed," which capture the lonely poetry of this stark place. Like the groundbreaking documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, To the Arctic 3D is another final warning about what we're doing to ourselves and what we stand to lose. It's also a panoramic record of that dying world.