A twerking polar bear and a trio of lively lemmings are the main selling points of Lionsgate’s animated feature originally slated for direct-to-video but now receiving a wide theatrical release. Hoping to cash in on this holiday weekend’s absence of kiddie fare — after all, you can’t take little Heather and Tommy to The Revenant — Norm of the North is mildly diverting, although Pixar needn’t be overly concerned.
The title character, voiced by Rob Schneider, is a polar bear so sweet that he can’t bring himself to eat seals, although he desperately tries to chase one down in the hyperkinetic opening scene. Norm’s special gift is the ability to “speak human,” which comes increasingly into play with the encroachment of bear-loving tourists and, more dangerously, a villainous billionaire real-estate developer, ironically named Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong), who plans to build luxury condos in the frozen landscape.
Alarmed when he finds out about the plan by the arrival of Mr. Greene’s marketing director, Vera (Heather Graham), to shoot a TV commercial, Norm decides that he has to take action. Encouraged by his wise seagull mentor Socrates (Bill Nighy), he stows away with three lemming cohorts on a ship to Manhattan to prevent his homeland from being despoiled. Once there, Norm finds himself a minor celebrity, with jaded New Yorkers assuming he’s an actor in a polar bear suit. He even performs his trademark dance, the “Arctic Shake,” to delighted audiences in Times Square, although unlike the current crop of Elmos, Spider Men, et al, he doesn’t solicit tips.
The film doesn’t exactly score points for originality, whether it’s the frequent musical numbers, the indestructible lemmings whose resemblance to Minions is strictly not coincidental or the reliably kid-pleasing bathroom humor, here evidenced by such moments as when the lemmings relieve themselves over a fish tank. As a bone to adults, there’s also a glancing effort to embrace such weighty themes as global warming and conservation. Neither its animation nor voice performances (Colm Meaney and comedian Gabriel Iglesias also lend their talents) are particularly memorable, but Norm of the North, especially in its early section set in the Arctic, has its appealing moments. And if the film does well, those adorable lemmings are going to make for some highly coveted plush toys.