The best animated features appeal to audiences of all ages. They take complex, mature ideas and boil them down into easily understandable messages that entire families can bond over. Over the last few decades, we have seen many shining examples of how to get this practice right – which makes it so strange that Norm of the North gets it so utterly wrong. From start to finish, it’s a jumbled, poorly written mess that can’t quite figure out what it’s trying to say or how it wants to say it.
Norm (Rob Schneider) is not like other polar bears living in the arctic; he’s sensitive, he can’t hunt, and weirdest of all, he has the ability to speak to humans. Although most of his peers make fun of him, Norm’s grandfather believes he’s destined for great things. However, this same grandfather disappears one day, and shortly after that a real estate developer named Mr. Greene (Ken Jeong) sends his employee Vera (Heather Graham) to start building model homes on arctic land – which could forever change (or even end) the polar bear way of life. From there, Norm and three of his adorable lemming pals journey to New York on a mission to preserve their way of life.
Norm of the North is bad. At some points, it feels more like a series of animated shorts than a cohesive film. Someone behind the scenes clearly adheres to the notion that a cute, fat polar bear dancing to pop music from 2015 will push ticket sales. Because of the fact that it’s so all over the place, it never can totally settle on a theme or underlying message, which forces us to take those pop culture references and instances of physical comedy purely at face value. One minute the movie feels as though it’s about self-acceptance, at other times it feels as though it’s a message about wildlife conservation, and sometimes even briefly about our obsession with social media (for some unknown reason) without committing to any of those concepts.
There’s also a palpable sense that the filmmakers behind the movie could never quite figure out the rules for Norm and the fact that he can communicate with people. As a result of he falls into a Stewie Griffin-esque conundrum in which the degree of surprise and disbelief people have towards Norm’s ability is never consistently portrayed.
One of the first things I noticed watching Norm of the North is how minuscule of an impression Rob Schneider makes as the titular bear. He’s an actor whose film and TV history is characterized by manic energy and funny accents, but for some reason, as Norm, he sounds like he just swallowed a handful of Klonopin before each take. It makes one wonder if the filmmakers went down the list of Adam Sandler’s Grown Ups crew and locked down the first actor who said yes to the project. Heather Graham fairs little better as Vera, but Ken Jeong does his best to save the day. Indeed, he is the only member of this cast who seems to bring their A-game to the film, but the script does him no favors as even Norm himself mentions that Mr. Greene is a “one-note villain.”
Norm’s journey from misunderstood polar bear to the Arctic’s last hope is populated by numerous characters, most of whom never end up being used in any significant way outside of Norm himself. For example, there’s a love interest introduced during the first act of the film that literally – and I can’t stress that enough – never comes into play until the movie’s final moments. Honestly putting that in the review will spoil nothing because – once again – the movie consistently picks up and drops plot threads such as that for no apparent rhyme or reason.
At this point your probably thinking something along the lines that I am overthinking the movie and should just appreciate it as a mindless comedy. The problem with that sentiment stems from the fact that there’s very little good comedy to be found here in the firs place. I would even venture to label many of the jokes in Norm of the North downright tasteless. There’s an overreliance on potty humor – literally a pee joke that goes on far longer than it needs to – and more than one joke about homosexuality that left members of my audience in profoundly awkward silences. This doesn’t mean the film is completely devoid of laughs; you will laugh if you see this movie, but not nearly as much as the filmmakers intended.
All of these issues pale in comparison to the fact that Norm of the North simply does nothing to set itself apart from any of the better animated features that have come before it. Rather than carving out it’s own identity, the movie feels like a “Best Of” compilation that draws from its contemporaries. Elements of Kung-Fu Panda, Madagascar, and many others rear their heads, but are never matched or changed in a meaningful way. Even Norm’s cute little lemming sidekicks clearly feel like an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Minions.
At the end of the day, the simple fact of the matter is that everything about Norm of the North was done better in some other animated film produced within the last decade. Its script is an erratic mess, its humor falls flat more often than not, and a cast who by and large feels like they are phoning it in performs it all. If you’re looking for a good movie to watch with your whole family this week, then it would ultimately be a wiser move to just check your DVD collection.