“How can I be king if I can’t hunt?” asks Norm, the sensitive, twerking Arctic polar bear voiced by Rob Schneider in Norm of the North — right before he lunges for a seal and takes off on a rollercoaster-style ride through the ice, only to wind up becoming a spectacle for human tourists eager to see some gruesome wildlife action. The young-hero-to-be-who-can’t-kill is a common theme in modern kids’ films (see also: How to Train Your Dragon) but in this slapdash animated film, it’s just another element that feels hastily welded onto an uneasy Frankenstein’s monster of kiddie-flick clichés. Norm is not only more sensitive than the average polar bear, he also discovered as a teen that he can speak like a human, unlike the rest of those around him. Furthermore, he also prefers to dance than to hunt. That doesn’t set him on a collision course with the rest of his tribe or anything like that, however. From what we can see, the other polar bears, not to mention the other Arctic denizens in the film, are pretty nice, too — to the extent that the film allows them to have any character traits at all, that is.
After a belabored opening that explains these various facets of Norm’s persona (can we call it a persona if he’s a bear?), the film settles in for the plot: Sleazebag real estate developer Mr. Greene (voiced by Ken Jeong) and his nice but desperate head of marketing, Vera (Heather Graham), have a plan to build fancy, expensive houses in the Arctic. In order to stop them and save his home, Norm and a small group of adorable, indestructible, flatulent lemmings — his furry, all-purpose Minions sidekicks — hitch a ride to civilization and find themselves in the big city. There, they attract the attention of Greene and Vera, who think Norm is just an eccentric actor in a bear costume. The humans decide to use him to try and sell their Arctic development. Norm, however, has other plans.
To be fair, most kids’ films are effectively pools of common motifs in various combinations. Norm of the North is, alternately, a sensitive-youngster-comes-of-age story, a fish-out-of-water comedy, a dance flick, an enviro-activist plea, a media satire, and much more. It’s got elements of Happy Feet, Madagascar, Despicable Me, Ice Age, and any number of other films. But most of these elements go nowhere. (Example: Vera has an adorable, precocious daughter who seems intended to be Norm’s obligatory human partner-in-crime, but who winds up curiously secondary to the plot.) Everything appears to have been thrown together with little attention paid to how it might all work together.
If Norm of the North were consciously undercutting these derivative tropes, that’d be one thing. But the overall effect — compounded by the awkward, substandard animation — isn’t irreverence, but carelessness, as the film whipsaws us between half-forgotten story threads and half-formed character details. And while kids might enjoy the occasional bits of broad humor — remember, they’re flatulent lemmings — they’ll likely be confused by the film’s convoluted final act, in which it tries to resolve its many slapdash elements with all the randomness with which it threw them at us in the first place. Anyway, I wish I could think up a clever kicker with which to end this review, but [insert fart noise here].