With penguins and ice princesses and Paleolithic creatures dominating the multiplexes and home screens this millennium, it takes some chutzpah to try to imaginatively wring more kid-friendly fun out of the frozen world. “Norm of the North,” a loud, chaotic animated feature about a polar bear who travels to New York, struggles with an also-ran vibe for its entire running time. Unfunny and strained, it seems unlikely to become the next massive arctic-inspired franchise after “Ice Age,” “Happy Feet,” “Frozen” and those persistent “Madagascar” penguins.
To say that gregarious, self-reflective Norm, voiced by Rob Schneider, is tasked with saving his arctic home from human encroachment might make you think this was a story with an explicit global warming theme. But strangely, “Norm of the North,” its screenplay credited to Malcolm T. Goldman, Steven M. Altiere and Daniel Altiere, is about a nefarious effort to build condos at the Arctic Circle, which sounds more like a “Mr. Show” sketch — and not that interesting of a sketch, to boot.
The denizens in this glacial milieu — which, apart from polar bears, include caribou, seals and lemmings — have a love-hate relationship with camera-snapping human tourists. Some willingly perform for them (a grinning, wiggling orca unnervingly evokes SeaWorld and doesn’t even merit a joke to that effect), while others resent the intrusion and worry for the future.
When wide-eyed, go-getter marketing director Vera (Heather Graham) shows up to film a commercial for her evil billionaire developer boss Mr. Greene (a shouty Ken Jeong), Norm decides he has to do something to stop it — not global warming, remember, but real estate development. (That climate change would reduce the land mass available for homes is never addressed. Is that being picky?)
Luckily, Norm has a power, handed down in his bear lineage: He can talk to humans. Yes, this is a story point. So he stows away to New York, meets Mr. Greene, auditions to be the adorable animal face of arctic condo living and becomes a social media star, all the while working to undermine Greene’s efforts. (Again, the fact that the villain’s name is Greene — and his logo is green-colored, and his attire hippie-ish — seems to deliberately take aim at environmentalists, so why is it about building condos?)
There’s so much busy, convoluted action to follow – including Vera getting her smart, conscientious daughter (Maya Kay) into an elite school, and rescuing Norm’s missing grandfather (Colm Meaney) from Greene’s secret lair – that none of it makes a lick of sense, even within the loose parameters of a whoosh-bang-fart-scream kiddie cartoon.
Occasionally Norm and everyone around him will break out into a dance, and you have to wonder if these numbers were scheduled as bathroom breaks. It doesn’t help, either, that the animation and character work is TV-level: so frenetic so that no real artistry is needed, but not so busy that you keep from noticing how the same background humans are repeated throughout. (I know it’s a small world after all, but still.)
Children might come away from director Trevor Wall’s bland, lower-tier mess having gleaned the worthwhile message that fighting for one’s home is a good thing, but they will be more likely to have gotten the memo that Norm’s lemming companions are super-cute fuzzballs that had better be available to buy in stores. The squeaky-voiced, indestructible sidekicks – they harmonize, they leap into action, they pee in the fish tank (but don’t commit suicide, thank heaven) — are this movie’s attempt at a Minions-style marketing grab with spin-off potential. You can practically hear executives’ fingers crossing. Cynical yes, but imagining this movie without the lemmings’ admittedly easy-to-take adorableness is a grim pastime. Norm has a big lug quality that’s inoffensive, but he’s hardly a memorable leading animal.
Ultimately, “Norm of the North,” both tired and tiring, feels like one more January placeholder for families. That animated movies are so prevalent they get their own dumping ground candidates is some sort of progress for the form, one supposes. But with a fifth “Ice Age” on the way, maybe it’s time to put the arctic on some kind of deep freeze.