Film: Reviews: Superbad and Arctic Tale

One is an incisive comedy, the other isn't

Columbia Pictures

Michael Cera (left) and Jonah Hill play geeky high school seniors on the make in Greg Mattola's Superbad.

In the rush to label perceived trends, it would be understandable to dub Arctic Tale The March of the Polar Bears and even begin to expect a slew of polar bear-inspired animated films like Happy Paws and Surf's Up on Bear Mountain. But Arctic Tale already plays some of those cards on its own.

The documentary aims to highlight the harsh realities of life in the great white region by focusing on two separate narratives — one of a young polar bear, the other of a baby walrus — but those stories are quickly overwhelmed by sugary sentiment and the tendency to baby and spoon-feed the audience.

The first miscue comes when the baby animals are given names. Sure, it might help for the purposes of identification, but the naming of Nanu (the female polar bear) and Seala (the walrus calf) immediately "brands" them in simplistic terms and in essence tames them. March of the Penguins kept its subjects at a slight remove, which maintained a sense of the environmental perspective audiences needed to appreciate their efforts. Our identification need only go so far, and once that line is crossed, as it is here, the world and the filmmakers' intentions are compromised.

Once you get past the naming issue, the story of Nanu holds our attention and creates an endearing character with a degree of uniqueness due to the solitary nature of polar bears. Mama bears tend to the cubs for up to three years before sending them off on their own, while the big papas remain largely uninvolved in the raising of cubs or the extension of any relationship with the mate. Which means that Nanu, who survives the first winter (and loses an unnamed male sibling in the process) and gets sent off early into her second to fend for herself, stands alone in the spotlight.

Seala, on the other hand, is raised by her mother and a protective aunt and remains among a large community of walruses. The pack mentality and their very similar appearances make it more difficult to establish a connection with Seala, much as it was with the very similar-looking penguins in March.

The beauty of the Arctic feels muted and not as crisp as the cinematography of March of the Penguins. Less attention is lavished on the cool, expansive landscape, since more time must be spent shifting from Nanu, who resides primarily on land, and Seala, who is largely in the water.

Handling the movement between these two narratives Queen Latifah, who while lacking the soothing majestic tones of Morgan Freeman brings an easy conversational style that is comforting in its own way.

Both kids and adults will likely find her an engaging vocal presence. But the main fault lies with the overwhelming decision to go too cute in the narratives. This Tale and its young audience deserve more of the grim reality.

Superbad isn't grim, either, but it has a mortal death-lock on the psychological and emotional realities of teenagers. Seth (Jonah Hill) and Evan (Michael Cera) are high school seniors hoping to enjoy the party vibe that overtakes those final days before the inevitable looming of summer and college irreparably changes everything. Of course, getting laid is the only topic that matters, and these two losers are all talk and no action, yet they hope that one night will set them on a new, righteous path to greatness.

If this sounds like a host of teen sex comedies from American Pie to Porky's, be prepared for a sometimes subtle — and sometimes gloriously not-so-subtle — evolution in the game because the script from summer of 2007's new "It Boy" Seth Rogen and writing partner Evan Goldberg infuses a real appreciation for the humiliations that befall boys on the way to manhood.

Seth and Evan are experiencing pre-separation anxiety as Evan has gotten into Dartmouth with third wheel Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), while Seth was only able to land a spot at the local state school. The pair has been friends since early childhood and is united in their awkward outsiderness.

Seth has a bit more childhood trauma (based on the exposure of his truly hilarious tendency to draw expertly detailed penises) than the eternally shy, though razor-sharp Evan. But the story sets them up for a night that will potentially cement them together forever, no matter where they individually find themselves.

Evan seeks to woo his longtime crush Becca (Martha MacIsaac) by bringing her favorite brand of alcohol to a bash hosted by Jules (Emma Stone), the new object of Seth's infatuation who hands him $100 and the task of landing enough booze to keep the underage party rocking. Evan and Seth, in turn, place their faith in Fogell, who has scored the craziest fake ID ever seen. Thus begins the longest, wackiest night three teens could ever imagine.

Former indie director (and member of Judd Apatow's Undeclared inner circle) Greg Mottola keeps things a little ragged. The excellent soundtrack mines the 1970s and creates a shaggy porn vibe that matches the goofy aspirations of Seth, Evan and Fogell. And for a movie that focuses so much attention on its male leads, Superbad makes sure the girls are just as smart and hip, despite their own comic idiosyncrasies.

Superbad's bad boy Rogen makes an appearance as a police officer (partnered with Hot Rod's Bill Hader) still way too in touch with his teenage self and caps off a career-making season that began with Knocked Up. Rogan proves to be the current center of Apatow's outcast ensemble that is storming the gates of Hollywood like a flaky horde of barbarians. Good for him, and better for us. Arctic Tale grade: C+; Superbad grade: A-

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