Voices of: Rob Schneider, Heather Graham, Ken Jeong, Colm Meaney, Loretta Devine, Gabriel Iglesias, Michael McElhatton, Bill Nighy, Mary Kay
Director: Trevor Wall
Norm is a polar bear in the Arctic Ocean with an ability to speak to humans. The only other person with this ability is his grandfather who has gone missing. A clumsy, inept and belittled bear, Norm is picked on by his friends for not fitting the mould, and for his ability to interact with the many human tourists who visit the Arctic. One day, Norm catches reports of planned habitation of human beings in the Arctic, led by an evil real estate tycoon, Greene (Ken Jeong) who has also imprisoned his grandfather. Norm heads to New York, where he befriends humans, mother-and-daughter Vera and Olympia (Heather Graham and Mary Kay) to take out Greene and save the Arctic from human habitation and global warming.
Norm of the North is a testament to how cheap CGI animation has become and the ability to get good quality animation at a low budget. This film is made at a budget of $18 million but somehow looks better than anyone could reasonably expect. It falls well short of the high standards of the Pixar-Disney team who are in another league entirely, but it doesn’t look significantly weak compared to the middle-of-the-road CGI animation, films such as Madagascar, Despicable Me or Minions.
In terms of visual quality there is no real “wow” moment, although one avalanche sequence at the start attempts to be one. The most visually striking moments are the underwater sequences, which are prettier and more pleasing to the eye. The CGI New York is very bland and artificial and the fake New York montage tropes is a cliché too many for my taste.
The other major mistake is in the design of the characters. Norm is supposed to be a polar bear, but this has to be told to us because Norm has the skull of Scooby Doo while this is an anthropomorphic principle in animation to make real animals have human-like qualities, but here it’s gone beyond the acceptable limits. Presumably, the animators did not have money to properly animate the furs on the face of a bear, so they compromised by giving all the bears the heads of dog instead.
Giving them a hairless head certainly keeps things simpler, likewise the codes of male and female attributes leads to such absurdities as female polar bears having feline appearance, with Norm’s love interest bearing the head of a lioness. Norm, for instance, moves on hind legs in the same fashion as Baloo in Disney’s The Jungle Book. Baloo, who to Disney’s credit, looks like a bear, worked in the ’60s but having the same style in modern animation seems like a weakness, especially since Disney’s Brave gave us a really cool bear.
The humans are also cartoony, appearing as caricatures of urbane types. The most dubious design is that of the villain, Greene, given a hook-nosed, slick-backed and sleazy look, a little too close to nasty anti-semitic stereotypes. The chief redeeming facet is the Lemmings, the critters who serve as Norm’s assistants, sidekick.
Essentially, they are the main heroes of the film, since most of the plot involves Norm relying on these Lemmings to do the hero’s job for them. The Lemmings too are derivative: Scrat in Ice Age, the Penguins of Madagascar and the Minions but they are a trope that has not become entirely played out in animation though their time is coming.
Norm of the North is a rather banal story, borrowing from The Lion King, Madagascar and other recent animated movies. The voice acting, with Rob Schneider playing the lead, Heather Graham as the human love interest, is not spirited or memorable enough to save the film, nor is the humour (a lot of it toilet humour and also the reference-pop culture style of Dreamworks) successful. This is a movie that barely scrapes by and while it achieves some base level competence against all odds, it doesn’t have the key ingredients of good writing and good character design to make the film really work.
The writer is programmer, Lightcube Film Society...