With a wintry chill in the air and lights on the trees beginning to twinkle, it seems the magic of the holidays has arrived. To celebrate, let’s take a journey back in time, in the hopes of rediscovering some underrated flicks of the Merry-season variety. So grab your favorite sweater and a hot cup of cocoa, and let’s venture forward into an Underrated Holiday Retrospective!
This week, we’re going to look at the cheesy but heartwarming magic that is 1991’s The Polar Bear King. Directed by Ola Solum (Orion’s Belt), this Norwegian fantasy film may not be focused on the holidays. Still, it contains an aesthetic that is so comforting, it’s near impossible to resist its whimsical elements.
Bears, Witches, and The Devil – Oh My!
The Polar Bear King spins the tale of a young ruler, who (in usual fashion) denies a marriage proposal from an evil witch. As a result, the wicked lady turns the king of Summerland into a polar bear, who can only be changed when he finds a bride that will love him (in his current arctic fur) for seven years.
This leads the king on a path to Winterland, where he encounters a beautiful princess. She has always dreamed of warmth and sunshine, something that the King promises to give her an abundance of. After some back and forth shenanigans with her family, the Princess finally accepts the Polar Bear King’s wishes, and thus begins an emotional test of love, loyalty, and courage.
At its most basic, The Polar Bear King is part of the Beauty and the Beast family of storytelling – a tale that has been adapted for hundreds of years into countless numbers of different cultures. But it is the heroism on display from the Princess, who is put through some pretty traumatic circumstances to reach her happiest of endings, that makes this story stand out from a crowd.
After putting her trust in a bear and later getting everything she loves taken from her, The Princess has to fight against the most evil of forces – the Devil, himself! Seriously, this movie might seem like a piece of fluffy family fun, but it ain’t playing around.
Yet, even against such odds, the Princess uses her intelligence to save the day and win back her true love. With this, The Polar Bear King serves as a beautiful live-action example of how a female never needs to be the damsel in distress and can take charge of her own story – even when others doubted her intelligence and strength.
A Stunning, yet Flawed, Children’s Book Illustration
From the first frame, The Polar Bear King oozes the most delicious levels of fantasy, as if you’re biting into a chunk of marzipan as each minute passes. From the crisp snow of Winterland to the lush gardens of Summerland, all the locations are stunning to behold. Ola Solum and the crew perfect that cozy, fairy tale appeal like watching a vintage postcard brought to life.
Yet easily the most captivating aspect of The Polar Bear King are the visual and special effects within it. Featuring puppets created by The Jim Henson Creature Shop, along with some natural yet expertly used editing magic, the film plays more to childhood delight than mature shock and awe. Considering that other flicks of the 90’s were using CGI in the worst of ways, that choice to go with practical elements created a much more timeless end result.
But where The Polar Bear King falls deep into the cinematic snow is with its dialog. For many kids of the 90’s, their first viewing of this flick was a dub in their native language. Though it’s unfortunately near impossible to find a copy of the original Norwegian track with any sort of subtitles, it’s easy to see that the script was kept at a basic level, so it could be easily translated for its young demographic.
With the decision to keep the dialog at a bare minimum, it results in the actors suffering in their portrayals – coming off more like they’re posing for an Annie Leibovitz photo shoot than giving fully realized performances. However, this doesn’t affect all of the cast – precisely that of the Witch and the Devil, played by Anna-Lotta Larsson and Helge Jordal, respectively.
With a clear sense of focus and control, both Larsson and Jordal sprinkle the best of silent film tricks into their portrayals – creating one of the more memorable, yet ridiculous, pair 90’s baddies seen on any international screen. They chew and spit back the scenery with a bold energy that is hard for any kid, or kid at heart, to clear from their nostalgic noggin.
But Why Should You Watch It?
Though perhaps not the technical achievement that films like T2: Judgement Day were for 1991, The Polar Bear King deserves your time for one single aspect – its as relaxing as fairy tale cinema gets. From the beautiful score by Geir Bøhren and Bent Åserud to the enchanting visual delights in its entire 87 minute running time, it’s hard to deny the pure childlike magic that Solum displays here.
There’s something to be admired about a film that unabashedly adores a naive and pure approach to storytelling. When examining Solum’s focus on the twinkle within the snow or the pastels hues of the flowers, rather than harsher threats within the plot, it’s clear that this director (nor his film) lacks any bit of cynicism – something that most modern filmmakers can’t seem to grasp.
Sure, you could argue that some elements of The Polar Bear King haven’t aged as gracefully as others. But with a pair of sparkly tinted shades, those dated aspects can be ignored for what is overall a simplistic tale of love conquering all. When we’re about to venture forth into the icy tundras of a new decade, perhaps that unsophisticated bit of wonder and awe is just what we need this holiday season.
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