January’s a notoriously rough month for movie releases. Most audiences are catching up on their late-December Oscar contenders, so the new release pickings are slim. But for younger audiences, any light-hearted animated fare will do, and that’s where “Norm of the North” comes in. It might take place in the arctic, but “Frozen” this is most decidedly not. For the tots, the film is blandly inoffensive enough to offer some Saturday afternoon entertainment, but this isn’t one of those crossover hits that parents can enjoy just as much as their kids.
In a rapid-fire burst of introductory exposition, we meet Norm (voiced by Rob Schneider). He’s a polar bear, he’s bad at hunting because he’s got a weakness for cute-sad seal eyes, he likes to dance, and he also speaks “human,” which means he’s going to be the king of the arctic, or so says his Grandpa (Colm Meaney). While searching for his purpose in life, Norm discovers a Frank Gehry-esque model home perched on an iceberg in his backyard, and the plan to turn the North Pole into the newest condo development. Norm decides to stow away to New York City to stop the humans from invading his home.
“Norm of the North” is a strange film in that it both works within the realms of a reality we recognize and also asks its audience to stretch those boundaries. This might be asking too much from an animated film, but in actuality, the film is a real estate drama about policy, political corruption and the risks of overdevelopment. With talking polar bears and dancing lemmings.
Norm falls in with Vera (Heather Graham) the second-in-command to slimy real estate developer Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong), whose plan is to lie, cheat and scheme his way into selling condos on the arctic. Norm presents himself as a spokesperson for the arctic, hoping to use his powers of human speech to stop the development. Much of the film revolves around marketing, approval ratings and media manipulations, which is an oddly business-oriented theme for a kids’ flick, but makes some sense in today’s personal branding, viral video universe.
However, the discourse remains on a junior level — Norm has three adorable, silo-shaped lemming sidekicks (they look like those other wildly popular animated sidekicks), who contribute all the juvenile toilet humor and fart jokes. There’s also a running theme around Norm’s special dance, the Arctic Shake, which drives people around the world crazy for him.
The animation is rudimentary and nothing to write home about, although the bendy, serpentine qualities of evil Mr. Greene are cleverly rendered. The jokes are kid-serviceable and the message about environmental protection, while noble, is ultimately a bit garbled. “Norm of the North” isn’t the next animated classic but it will do in a pinch to keep the kids busy for a few winter weekend hours.
Norm of the North
Rated: PG for mild rude humor and action. Voices: Rob Schneider, Heather Graham, Maya Kay, Colm Meaney, Ken Jeong. Director: Trevor Wall. Running time: 93 minutes. Theaters: Edwards 21, Edwards 14, Majestic 18, Village Cinema.