Best friends come in all sizes!
Memo to Disney: Hand drawn animation is not dead as you assume. Computer animation is a good option, but not the whole solution. As proof, I offer The Little Polar Bear, a magnificent Danish animated film that is (shock!) hand-drawn.
It uses lush visuals to tell a sweet, yet involving story about a young polar bear named Lars. One bright morning, Lars befriends a young seal named Robbie. This friendship causes much heartache at first since an unwritten rule states that bears and seals must be enemies. Still, the two youngsters make enough of a case that bear patriarch Mika suspends the rule…provided the seals help provide fish for the bears.
Meanwhile, there is a fish shortage in the Arctic. The "Black Mouth," in reality a schooner ship, is leaving a major hole in the food chain. In an attempt to save his friends, Lars gets lost. Will he make his way back home?
Anyone who tells you hand-drawn animation is dead is wrong. For every successful Pixar film, there are at least three Rescue Heroes: The Movie (at least that film had a well written script). While it is true that some hand-drawn animation can be dreck, it is unfair to declare it dead. Hayao Miyazaki has made a high art of it with his masterpieces. British animator John D. Wilson's Shinbone Alley still remains as innovative and fresh now as it did 33 years ago. (Plus, he's still active in animation today.) And features such as The Little Polar Bear prove there is still great life in the art form.
This film is based on a series of books by Danish author Hans de Beer, which have just been reissued in new English translations. The screenplay by Bert Schreckel, Thomas Wittenberg, Piet de Ricker (original German version), and Steve Kramer (English translation) retains the qualities that made the original books so good. It doesn't resort to traditional plotting; every event that occurs in the film feels organic. It is strong on characterization, creating a set of unique characters that we all know well by the film's conclusion.
The animation is beautiful. Deep blues and rich whites make it very soothing to watch. There is a unique texture in hand-drawn animation that not even the best computers can emulate. The Little Polar Bear is a prime example of this, with its creamy skies and velvety water providing the backdrop for their animal (and human) cast.
The film would have been a contender for the Animated Feature Oscar had Warner Bros. bothered to give it a theatrical release. The fact that Malibu's Most Wanted and Grind were given the opportunity but this masterpiece wasn't will be a painful reminder for years to come.
Warner Bros has given The Little Polar Bear better treatment for its home video release. First, the disc is enclosed in a keep case. That's right! No snapper case! Let's hope this becomes the norm very soon.
We are treated to a full-frame transfer. The film was composed for 1.66:1 and the end credits are presented this way. Normally, I would be the first to complain, but the transfer looks fantastic. Since this is a recent release (2002 in Europe, 2003 in the United States), I would expect nothing less. Colors look appropriately bright, as if a rainbow were beaming out of my set. Best of all, the textures I described above are accurately recreated on disc without many of the problems that often plague hand-drawn features.
Audio is also superb. You have a choice of Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0 surround in English or Dolby Digital 5.1 in French. Why there is no Danish or German track is anyone's guess, but what we do have is excellent. Dialogue sounds audible and clear throughout the feature. Music sounds vibrant and loud.
Extras are mainly for the children. The "audio commentary" is not what you think. You are given two screens with lists of the thirteen main characters. Click on one and you will hear Lars describe who they are. Kids will love it.
Several games are included. A jigsaw puzzle and guessing cards are exactly that and extremely easy too. The one gem is "Catch the Lemmings," in which you guide Caruso the Penguin as various lemmings dive off an ice bank. It's great, addictive fun.
A music video for the main single from the soundtrack is included. No Angels, an European pop group, performs "There Must Be An Angel." It's okay, if Spice Girlsesque pop is your thing.
Kids will get a primer in editing with this disc. Three scenes are offered and what they have to do is select what order to play them in. The result will play out in front of their eyes. Interesting look for youngsters.
The film's theatrical trailer is included, in full frame, as well as trailers for various other Warner releases.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• "Audio Commentary" on the 13 Main Characters
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