For better and worse "The Glacler Fox," a Japanese wildlife documentary now at area theaters, recalls the tradition of the Disney True Life Adventure series. The patiently gathered, frequently awesome footage of wild animals in their natural habitats is softened and distorted by anthropomorphic narrative devices and nawkish musical accompaniment.
In this case it's difficult to decide whether the narration or score does more to blunt the integrity. Presumably repeating a device used in the original Japanese version (reputed to be the greatest box-office hit of recent years, upholding the national honor against such Yankee competition as "Star Wars" and "Saturday Night Fever") Arthur Hill speaks the lines of the narrator, a quavery-voiced old oak tree, who supposedly beholds and delights in everything that happens to the protagonist, a male glacier fox called Flep.
Although Grandpa Oak Tree occasionally transmits useful information about Flep's species, he is mainly a fluttery, fraudulent old nuisance. Grandpa's solicitude, inspired by the fact that Flep and his mate, dubbed Leila, first plight their troth beneath his bare wintry branches, is rivaled by the merciless sentimentality of the songwriters. A dozen saccharine rock ditties, summed up in titles like "I'm Just a Vagabond, Movin' On," "To Be Close," "The Wind Will Bring My Love" and "Good Morning, World," punctuate and pacify the exposition, making Nature seem as synthetic as a Joe Brooks ballad.
And yet, through the sometimes blinding flurries of slush, one still may discern authentically fascinating terrain and wild animal behavior. "The Glacier Fox" was shot over the course of four years on the northeast coast of Hokkaido, the northernmost of the four major Japanese islands, whose capital, Sapporo, was the site of the 1972 Winter Olympics. The agricultural area (apparently similar to our Pacific Northwest) undergoes spectacularly photogenic seasonal changes.
The basic organizing principle of the film is sound: a year in the life cycle of a glacier fox, beginning and ending in winter. What spoils this simple design are gingerbread adornments, probably added to allay parental fears of what might frighten children if exposed to nature in the raw.
The footage also may be compromised by the desire to stretch the subject to feature length. For example, the filmmakers linger over the fate of a blind fox cub, characterized as a "dreamer" who vanishes into the sea. Certain dramatic visual effects and compositions are repeated so often that their initial impact is dulled. This is particularly true of ground-level traveling shots through the fields meant to approximate the viewpoint of a running fox and of majestic sunset vistas in which enormous yellow suns shimmer and flatten along rubyred horizons.
At the same time there are fabulous sights that you want to linger over: swans in migratory flight during a snowfall; the foxes stalking and bagging such prey as snakes, fish and rodents; the foxes struggling to protect their den from an invading farm dog.
The authentic images and sequences are undeniably privileged moments of vicarious experience. As usual, one must decide whether the underlying authenticity is worth the aggravation of the sweetly artifical packaging.