This past week the Toronto International Film Festival has been showcasing the latest works by high-profile Canadian directors, about which more in a future column. Meanwhile, a small Canadian coproduction has slipped into a few theatres without fanfare. The Journey Home (originally released as Midnight Sun) premiered last September at Cinefest Sudbury. It’s a heart-warming if sometimes oversentimental effort from Ottawa-born director Roger Spottiswoode, better known for Hollywood action movies including the 1997 James Bond feature Tomorrow Never Dies.
No one dies in this movie, except in the past when the father of a young teenage boy, Luke (Dakota Goyo), is recalled having gone through the ice to his death — a mishap unfairly blamed on a wilderness guide/artist named Muktuk (Croatian actor Goran Visnjic looking vaguely Aboriginal; muktuk actually mean whale meat in Inuktitut). Luke lives with his mom in a northern village called Devon (actually Churchill, Man.). She’s a biologist who departs to study a population of beluga whales (along with polar bears, Churchill’s other main attraction), leaving Luke in the care of his aunt. (Trivia point: one of the monitored belugas is named Bond.)
A nighttime close encounter with a female bear, tranquilized to be transported north a safe distance by helicopter, leads to Luke finding her cub stranded in a shed near the house. Luke effectively adopts the playful critter and seeks Muktuk’s help in returning it to its mother. When that that doesn’t work Luke decides to head off alone with his furry “buddy” on a reckless snowmobile journey north some 160 kilometres to “Cape Resolute” where the mother bear has been dropped.
Muktuk goes on a rescue mission but predictably a series of challenges test their survival. There are vicious storms. After falling through the ice, Luke is saved by Muktuk bringing him to an Inuit camp. Then he and the cub, named Pezoo (“vagabond”), get separated and stranded on an ice floe. Another rescue is thanks to a “rig” (which appears to be some kind of floating oil platform as if in Alaska). But Luke mistrusts his saviours’ intentions in regard to the cub and sneaks away, using an abandoned leaky boat to make for Cape Resolute. Of course after these improbable misadventures both mothers and cubs are happily reunited.
There are a few scenes that hint at more: a reference to destroying the Inuit way of life; coming across a group of rich white hunters with their trophy bear. Essentially, though, this is a Disneyfied storyline with melodramatic music to match. The star that steals the show, the adorable cub Pezoo, is actually from a Chinese facility. Unless you watch the credits or notice the “Canada Goose” logos on parkas, the Canadian setting is fictionalized as a mythic Arctic landscape complete with northern lights, presumably to appeal to international audiences.
Still there’s a dearth of human-scale family-oriented movies at the multiplex and this adventure tale of a boy and his friend offers some modest satisfactions. Just as long as the kids don’t ask for a polar bear as a pet.