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Norm of the North

January 15, 2016
Norm of the North

Every time I think I’m over being surprised at the crap that some studios expect parents to shovel into their kids’ faces, they manage to outdo themselves. The latest insult to children’s tastes is Norm of the North, courtesy of Splash Entertainment, better known for their tie-in videos for Bratz dolls and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it theatrical release of a CGI Strawberry Shortcake movie. So this is their first “real” movie, but they’re not a studio known for making anything other than cheap cash-ins on a market segment that has yet to build up any real defenses against commercial pandering. And that sensibility comes across in the writing, which comes primarily from a pair of (I’m assuming, from their names) brothers who once wrote direct-to-video sequels to the already-bad live-action Scooby-Doo movies.

On top of that, it’s a Rob Schneider movie. Don’t worry, he’s still putting out lazy, puerile garbage for overgrown middle-schoolers; The Ridiculous Six is doing quite well on Netflix, evidently. But as his movie career has faded he seems to have picked up a sideline doing voice work for, well, cheap computer-animated toy tie-in cartoons. Thankfully his usual adolescent sense of humor doesn’t carry over, though one of the very few oblique references aimed at anyone over six in the audience turns out to be a gay joke. Seriously.

All this goes to say that Norm of the North isn’t just accidentally bad, it has bad baked right in. This is a movie that started at bad and then set up a committee to ask where it could cut even more corners. It’s a pastiche of pop-culture references and stereotypes as they might appear to someone who doesn’t have any real understanding of them. Just like, well, what had become of Saturday morning cartoons, before everyone realized how terrible they’d gotten and pulled the plug.

So the Arctic is in trouble, which kids might have heard about from the news. Except the danger isn’t climate change; it’s an overzealous developer (Ken Jeong) who wants to install pre-fabricated architectural monstrosities for some reason called “condos”. His director of marketing, Vera (Heather Graham), comes up with the idea of a polar bear mascot to drive interest in the venture. Which is where Norm (Schneider) comes in: as one of two polar bears who — no explanation even attempted — are able to “speak human”, he wants to get the mascot job and bring down the project from the inside.

It’s kind of impressive that an 86-minute movie — including the longer-than-average credits typical of animated fare — still feels so padded. The actual storyline has no development whatsoever; the time is instead filled with subplots. Norm feels different from the other bears, and isn’t good at hunting. The other arctic animals like the recent increase in tourism and don’t see the danger. Vera has misgivings about the plan, but needs the developer’s recommendation to get her daughter into an exclusive private elementary school. And even more. As a result, the movie has about four distinct endings, none of which feel satisfying, and they still leave loose ends around.

These are signs that the producers, at best, do not care about your children beyond exploiting them for profit. Telling a worthwhile story is secondary to providing moment-by-moment distractions. Throw in some indestructible lemmings as a cheap rip-off of Despicable Me‘s minions; kids seem to love them. Pad out a slow bit with a random mass-produced pop song they might recognize. The Peanuts Movie at least had the decency to commission one that vaguely supported its plot, but there’s not even that fig leaf here.

And, worst of all, they’re probably right. I’m sure many parents do care enough about their children’s media diets to steer them away from empty calories like this, but there are plenty who don’t. The executives at studios like Splash are not stupid; pumping out cheap crap is their business model, and as bad as Norm of the North is they’re still likely to turn a tidy profit. In fact, they’ve already greenlit two direct-to video sequels.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: pass.
This review also appears at Punch Drunk Critics.

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