Movie Review: Norm of the North
By Ben Gruchow
January 20, 2016

Animation worse than what you'd normally see on a cable channel.

Everyone involved with Norm of the North is in need of a time-out. It is a movie with just about nothing to its name besides the concrete reality of a running time. The screenplay is written by individuals seemingly unfamiliar with the concept of a joke or a plot point. The cast members involved are saddled with unspeakable dialogue, and our hearts go out to them as they try valiantly to make work exchanges like the following, between a human and a polar bear:

“Are they house-trained?!”
“Of course! They’ve been peeing in houses forever!”

The movie is very bad, yes. There is nothing edifying or educational you or anyone you love could possibly glean from seeing it. That’s somewhat less of a surprise than a foregone conclusion, and what’s more worth talking about is the unique way in which the movie is very bad. What we see here, throughout the entirety of an interminable 93-minute duration, is a general ignorance of cinematic storytelling that goes way beyond simple inexperience. This is certainly evident in every discipline that’s at the mercy of the production budget (here, it’s $18 million - pocket change for a CGI feature in 2016, and we could perhaps forgive some of the ghastly texturing, modeling, and rigging work on display here because of it), but it also shines through in those departments that don’t necessarily come with a dollar sign attached: framing, editing, writing, pacing, acting, tone, story.

That story, to give the proceedings more credit than they deserve, is about a loser of an Arctic polar bear that’s incapable of doing just about anything. We meet Norm (voiced by Rob Schneider) as he’s in the middle of explaining - to his would-be prey - that he’s unable to be a good hunter because of a day, long ago, when he realized he could speak English. Norm learns of a callous land developer (Ken Jeong) who plans on building homes for the ultra-rich in the bears’ homeland (indicating a serious lack of knowledge regarding the Arctic, housing, or both, but never mind). This endangers our protagonist’s homeland, so Norm travels to New York to prevent the developer from executing his plot. In the process, he befriends friendly company employee Vera (Heather Graham) and her eldritch abomination of a daughter, Olympia (Maya Kay). Accompanying Norm are three disgusting little lemming characters who are supposed to manifest some sort of comic relief. Oh, and he’s also looking for his long-lost grandfather.

This is deeply stupid stuff. There are all manner of reasons why Norm fails as a protagonist, but chief among them is the absence of motivation in any form. There’s no sense that he is anything but a vehicle for plot-advancing dialogue, and that’s a neat trick for a movie that gives him all sorts of ostensible reasons to be where he is at any given moment. The screenplay fails him, too, by never giving him any opportunity to build toward revelation or knowledge. Each scene begins and ends at the same place for the character, like a particularly weak sketch on a comedy show. And since every other character is a dubious beneficiary of this logic as well, the movie really has no choice of how to progress from one development to the next other than to flatly and explicitly acknowledge it, as if stating, “this is what we’re going to do next.” It’s incredibly enervating.

The movie’s themes, to the degree that they are decipherable, are idiotic. I suppose it’s disingenuous to complain that the opportunity for commentary on or satire about unchecked land speculation and development is left unexplored; I feel no such hesitancy regarding the movie’s total failure to make any sense out of what it thinks it’s saying at all. Something is going on here that we’re supposed to pick up on at something like an adult level; this movie’s target audience is unlikely to get much out of a line like, “These weren’t for you peasants, anyway! They were for the one percent!”

What we end up with is a polar bear trying to save his remote and endangered Arctic homeland from an unscrupulous development company, headed up by a hipster caricature, with the company name and the individuals involved all circling around some implication of higher thought that’s never followed through on or even tangentially developed. At the same time, it feels way too intentional to be a mistake.

The movie’s biggest problem is that it’s brain-dead. Eagerly lining up to take its place in line should it at any point develop a pulse or awareness, though, is the fact that it’s a colossally ugly movie, on every technical front. Character design: The Arctic characters (Norm, the lemmings, and a few others) kinda-sorta get by on the fact that they’re representing something (anthropomorphic talking animals) we’ve never seen in real life. Virtually any other CGI or traditionally-animated feature film has done it better, but it’s a consolation. The human characters, though, are a whole different ball of wax. Mr. Greene, our antagonist, moves in a rubbery, pistoning way that suggests nobody bothered to weight the model’s limbs to suggest gravity or air resistance. And Vera’s daughter Olympia is a terrifying moppet with soulless Uncanny Valley expressionism; a moment toward the end of the film where she smiles conspiratorially with Norm is one to send shivers down the spine.

The movie’s just all wrong, in every way imaginable, to one degree or another. This is the type of film to screen when you want to illustrate how difficult it is to make a feature, and to impress the value of a disciplined and consistent showrunner. For there was clearly nobody at the wheel here; you can sense with each scene that the writers, the director, the producers, etc., were all intoxicated by the reality that they were making a for-real major motion picture, and that it was going to be showing in the very same theaters that the big guys use. That kind of enthusiasm is appropriate, provided that there’s a person at the helm who can direct it to the right target.

Here, it seems more like the filmmakers were so excited to make the movie that nobody had any energy left to expend on how to do anything remotely new or interesting with it; Daniel and Steven Altiere and Malcolm Goldman coughed up a screenplay, and perhaps director Trevor Wall decided to play it safe the first time around. Perhaps everyone involved lost touch with context and failed to realize that stale, boring material will stay that way even when written by newcomers to the industry. Perhaps everyone involved has a better second feature waiting for them - although there’s scant evidence in favor of that, considering how totally this one falls on its face. Norm of the North is as total a creative wipeout as a movie is likely to possibly have.