Call of the Wild

The heartfelt raunch of Superbad; heart-warming polar bears in Arctic Tale

In the beginning there was Porky's, with its sex-obsessed teens (are there any other kind?) embarking on a do-or-die mission to shed their virginity. American Pie ratcheted up the raunch to find actual humor in the scenario, spawning legions of inferior imitators. And now, nearly a decade on, we have Superbad, the rightful next generation in this mutated strain.

Crack open a loopy, libidinous egghead or two, and Superbad is what you're likely to get: a movie so hilariously dirty that we don't even recognize its jokes can also be pretty darned smart.

This is the sort of flick where a horny kid assaults us with a gloriously crude soliloquy that bemoans "peaking" too early, having by his count received eight hand-jobs and "two-thirds of a blow-job" at the beginning of his high school career, some two years ago, but absolutely nothing since. "You're like Orson Welles," commiserates his similarly obsessed pal, an observation all the funnier for being muttered in perfect sincerity. But by this point the audience's howls will likely have drowned out the line, so you'll have to listen closely.

Superbad seems happier scandalizing us with bad behavior and over-the-top inanities than reminding us of famous dead auteurs, but it's a safe bet that this is the smartest stupid movie you'll see all summer. Our horndog heroes are Evan (Arrested Development's Michael Cera) and Seth (Jonah Hill, the flabby roommate from Knocked Up), best pals since birth who are about to be separated when they finally fly the coop for college.

Along with their equally horny but even more pathetic friend, Fogell (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), a runty stick figure with a face that looks half-melted, the underage characters embark on a mission to buy booze and attend the big, end-of-high-school party — an event that practically assures their getting laid and that inevitably leads to a comedy of errors where absolutely everything goes wrong. And the more wrong things go, the funnier they get.

Fogell takes to calling himself McLovin and winds up driving around with a couple of delusional, substance-abusing cops; Seth finds himself at a gathering of meth freaks where a biker chick uses him as a human tampon (don't ask); and, as the kids' wild night escalates toward a painfully absurd stratosphere, Superbad begins to feel like the younger bastard child of Clerks and After Hours (whose it-happened-one-night surrealism the movie nails perfectly). One bizarre detour leads to another until Superbad finally arrives at an extremely odd and — hang on, now — poignant place where the kids' sexual and romantic fantasies all come true, albeit in classic "Monkey's Paw" fashion, with every major and minor triumph compromised by something a little bit sad or unpleasant.

This eleventh-hour blast of be-careful-what-you-wish-for reality brings to a curiously appropriate head a series of small, surprisingly heartfelt moments that sneak in almost under the radar, emerging through the movie's chaos to add a layer of depth and — dare I say it? — a moral center. The script here (by Ali G Show writers Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, who also starred in Knocked Up) practically assures our helpless, guilty laughter but grounds the gross-out shenanigans in a coming-of-age narrative that bends clichés to its will even as it grants flesh and blood to even its most obnoxious characters.

But don't let that fool you. Superbad is rarely less than rude, crude and ridiculous, thank goodness, and no one gets let off the hook here — right up to a final display of beautifully awkward affection between our staunchly hetero heroes, just to make their adolescent embarrassment complete.

Love — or, more specifically, the urge to reproduce — is also what ultimately drives Arctic Tale, a movie that I'm tempted to describe as this season's March of the Penguins, only with global warming and farts. And no, there are no penguins here — but if there's anything that kids love more than penguins, it's cute, cuddly polar bear cubs, and Arctic Tale just about corners the market on those.

It should also be mentioned that Arctic Tale is, like that aforementioned penguin flick, a documentary — so tread cautiously, particularly when considering small children. My 8-year old critic-in-training, who will eagerly watch just about anything, was unusually restless during the film's opening sequences — a probable indication that human fear of the dreaded D-word might be genetically encoded, or at least something learned early on. About 10 minutes in, when he realized what he'd been duped into seeing, my child demanded to know why we were watching "a History Channel show" instead of "a real movie." Your mileage may vary.

In any event, Arctic Tale chronicles the lives and times of Nanu and Seela, a polar bear and walrus, respectively, who struggle to survive at the top of the world, and whose destinies eventually become entwined. The movie falls all over itself trying to be as family-friendly as possible, ascribing names and simplified human attributes to its animal subjects and providing an ingratiating narration by Queen Latifah that frequently reduces the on-screen action to homespun homilies and quasi-jive talk. The movie has lots to say about what's supposedly going on in the adorable little fuzzballs' heads as they frolic, but is significantly less forthcoming about the harsher realities briefly depicted here. "We Are Family" plays over a panorama of lolling walruses described as kindly "aunties" and "cousins," for instance, but don't expect to hear our cheery narrator weigh in on the meaty psychodynamics driving a male polar bear to devour his own young.

Nanu and Seela eventually find their footing in the world, but it's a task made even tougher due to melting polar ice caps upsetting the creatures' ecosystem, making hunting and mating much more difficult. Arctic Tale was produced by Kristen Gore, daughter of Al, so the global-warming angle shouldn't come as much of a surprise, but the movie's not exactly subtle about hammering home its agenda. As documentaries go, it's also just a tad disingenuous in that "Nanu" and "Seela" don't in fact exist. They're actually composites cobbled together from various case studies that best support what the movie wants to say.

Still, only a fool or a captain of industry would argue that Arctic Tale's environmental message is less than sound, so if it takes a few doctored facts and a Morgan Freeman-lite voice-over to do the job — well, any port in a storm. And if you're still not convinced, just wait for those crowd-pleasing sequences of mass walrus flatulence, an orgy of cartoon sound effects before which the campfire scene in Blazing Saddles pales. Sometimes it takes a village; sometimes a simple fart will do.

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