Any film aimed squarely at the pre-teen set that uses the word “pinniped” at the outset, and with a delightful insouciance, is a film that I want to get behind, even if it’s to recommend it strictly to that pre-teen set. For them, it will be an animated film with big songs, perfunctory plot, and indestructible lemmings who are just a little too free with some of their bodily functions. For the adults, it will be exactly the same thing. And there you have it.
The eponymous Norm (Rob Schneider) is a suitably lovable polar bear with issues about hunting. He would rather tell his life story to seals than gobble them down, and this quirk is seriously threatening his status as heir-apparent to the title of King of the North. He also has some qualms about the extravagant shows that the denizens of his neck of the arctic put on for the tourists who pass through snapping pictures and being wowed by nature at its most Busby Berkley. When Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong), an evil New York real-estate developer, threatens Norm’s home turf with pre-fab houses that looks suspiciously like the Gehry-designed Disney Concert Hall, the oddball ursine decides to go to New York and use the power of PR to turn public opinion against the project. Fortunately, he has the unwitting help of Vera (Heather Graham) Mr. Greene’s very own PR maven, and the very witting help of Vera’s precocious 11-year-old daughter, Olympia (Maya Kay), to beat the mogul at his own game.
The story uses every cliché it can think of as Norm and his attendant lemmings bustle their way through the unfamiliar environs of the big city. Things are done to an aquarium that are unforgiveable, even with the new use for puffer fish that is explored later on. There is no time taken for the necessary emotional build-up to make any of the tropes pay off in the film’s rush to the inevitable, from Vera’s deal with the spaghetti-limbed Greene to insure Olympia’s admission to a school for geniuses, to Norm finding his self-esteem.
Contrast that with some careful animation. When Norm gallops across the tundra or a city street, the peculiar loping involved is a perfect reproduction of how polar bears actually run. Not to mention, though I will, the consistent use of the scientific names for animals, and some serious biology introduces painlessly into the plot. Props as well to the ocean storm that marks the climax of the film’s drama, which finds some real tension there amid ominously looming waves.
NORM OF THE NORTH misses many opportunities, but has the grace to include a message about preserving arctic ecology. It might also be the launching pad for those lemmings, who, when not defiling aquaria, are the cutest co-stars since the Minions.