Review: ‘To The Arctic 3D,’ narrated by Meryl Streep

“To The Arctic 3D” is a nature documentary with an identity crisis.

It uses a cutesy ice font for its credits, with the words shattering and exploding toward you in 3-D. Director Greg MacGillivray and writer Stephen Judson try to form an inspirational narrative around a polar bear mom and her two cubs, stressing the importance of a Sophie’s Choice scenario. And there are also a few different subplots: about a couple tracing the migration of caribou in Alaska, a photographer who has swam with the polar bears for 20 years, and the mothering instincts of walruses. For being only 40 minutes long, “To The Arctic 3D” certainly has a lot going on—and not much of it is handled very deeply.

MacGillivray and Judson have worked together before on documentaries about the Grand Canyon, Greece, coral reefs and Everest, but something about “To The Arctic 3D” seems a little thrown together. Perhaps it’s that the film doesn’t have a main narrative outside of “global warming is bad,” which is respectable, of course. But there’s no clear, single story in “To The Arctic 3D,” which reduces it to being a bunch of pretty images forcibly strung together.

Nevertheless, “To The Arctic 3D” certainly has a sense of grandeur, especially in IMAX. The film was shot using only IMAX cameras and is showing in the D.C. area at the National Museum of Natural History, which boasts a 60- by 90-foot IMAX screen. On that huge screen, “To The Arctic 3D” is breathtaking. The 3-D is used well, with snow falling on you, ocean water splashing in your face, and birds careening all around you. Every scene takes on profound beauty, the kind created by loneliness and isolation: The canyons and waterfalls created by melting glaciers; chunks of sea ice floating in a desolate ocean; the rippling fur of a polar bear as it surveys its surroundings; the ethereal neon of the Northern Lights. “To The Arctic 3D” knows we want landscape shots, and we get them in grand glory.

If the documentary’s 40 minutes were just shots of ice, snow, water, and animals, that’d be great. But too many things seem crammed in—and even though they’re all separately interesting, they don’t effectively gel. Paul McCartney does the documentary’s music, and hearing Beatles songs like “Because” and McCartney’s own “Mr. Bellamy” is certainly enjoyable because of the IMAX theater’s top-notch sound system. Do they fit with the documentary, though? I mean, really?

Similarly out of place are those little subplots: a brief interview with an Inuit man about how “the ancient weather patterns have changed”; he’s not in the documentary for more than five minutes, tops. Also shortchanged are a filmmaker and biologist couple who are tracking the caribou’s migration across hundreds of miles of Alaskan wilderness to the coastal plans; again, they get maybe another five minutes. These storylines are interesting, and using them only to pad out the documentary (which is already short to begin with) seems sloppy and kind of disrespectful.

“To The Arctic 3D” is at its most cohesive when it focuses on the polar bears, only 20,000 of which remain; explaining their evolutionary history, narrator Meryl Streep stresses “they’re at home here, and only here.” Polar bears napping? Awesome. Polar bears fighting each other? Also awesome. Polar bears swimming in the great blue ocean, with no land in sight? Awesome … and depressing … and the entire point of the documentary.

But every scene with the polar bears feels shortened, truncated, over before it really gets going. Streep mentions how much the polar bears resist being filmed, but that feels like a cop-out for the sparse footage. You see a polar bear eating a dead seal, but not hunting it. You briefly glimpse a polar bear mother and her cub during the longest swim by the species ever recorded—9 days, 430 miles—but the entire trip is glossed over. And while the film pretends it’s about that one polar bear mom and her two 7-month-old cubs, they’re only focused on during the second half of the documentary; the family isn’t given enough screen-time to be a prevailing theme.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on “To The Arctic 3D,” which certainly has its heart in the right place: focusing viewers on the problems facing the polar bears and how global warming has impacted the Arctic. According to the documentary, by 2050, the Arctic Ocean could be totally free of ice—a death sentence for many of its animals. That’s certainly a serious issue, and one that deserves our undivided attention. It’s weird, then, that “To The Arctic 3D” can’t really focus on the topic at hand.