Although a certain group of flippered flightless birds living closer to the bottom of the planet have long been hogging the cinematic spotlight in films like “Happy Feet” and “March of the Penguins,” let’s not forget that fauna primarily — or exclusively — living above 66°33"N have managed to garner a fair amount of non-documentary screen time as well. Below, you’ll find five of our favorite, mostly anthropomorphic animal characters hailing from above the Arctic Circle. Did we forget one? Tell us about it in the comments section.


snowy owlHedwig — The “Harry Potter” series

Although the snowy owl, Bubo scandiacus, primarily live and breed north of the Arctic Circle in the frigid tundra of Canada, Alaska and Eurasia, this tufted-eared rodent-eater has also been spotted further south in other locales including Scotland. "O RLY," you ask? Yes indeed, a rather intuitive bird of prey named Hedwig resides at Scotland’s famed Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry as the trusty pet/companion/letter-carrier of Harry Potter. Although Hedwig (RIP) doesn’t have the ability to speak like some of the animals on this list, it’s implied that she and her young master are able to communicate with each other through other, magical means. We should also point out that although a lady owl, Hedwig is portrayed by male snowy owls in the “Harry Potter” films, as only males boast completely white plumage.


Narwhal T-shirt from

Mr. Narwhal — “Elf”

Cinema’s greatest — and perhaps only — anthropomorphic appearance from the mysterious, massive-toothed mammal known as the narwhal can be found in Will Ferrell’s raunch-free Christmas comedy, “Elf.” In the brief but apparently T-shirt-worthy scene (right), a kindly Monodon monoceros named Mr. Narwhal (voiced by director John Favreau) emerges from the ice-covered waters of the North Pole to show off his unicorn-esque dental work and wish Buddy the titular elf (Ferrell) best of luck on his trip to New York City in search of his cranky, non-elfin biological father played by James Caan. And for the curious: Narwhals, along with beluga and bowhead whales, are one of only a handful of whale species that reside in the Arctic Ocean year-round.


Iorek Byrnison — “The Golden Compass”

scene from

OK, so this entry really veers into the realm of make-believe but when we think of talkin’ and emotin’ Arctic beasts, King Iorek Byrnison from the 2007 film adaptation of Philip Pullman’s YA fantasy epic “The Golden Compass” immediately comes to mind. Voiced by Ian McKellen, this plus-sized, armor-clad polar bear (a Panserbjørner, if you want to get technical) is a fierce protector of and mode of transportation for pint-sized heroine Lyra Belacqua on her perilous journey to rescue kidnapped children. Iorek also happens to be a wiz at metallurgy (opposable thumbs and extreme intelligence come in handy here). For a film featuring polar bears in a non-parallel universe filled with Dæmons, Gobblers, and anti-Catholic sentiment, we recommend sticking to the National Geographic documentary, also from 2007, “An Arctic Tale,” or the Meryl Streep-narrated IMAX film, “To The Arctic.”


Prancer  “Prancer”

While Prancer may not be the most famous reindeer of all, this member of Santa’s team of flying caribou did get a chance to steal the spotlight in the supremely drippy 1989 family film, “Prancer.” The plot is simple: A young girl in rural Michigan finds an injured reindeer and, despite objections from her widowed father, tries to nurse it back to health with the help of a couple of kooky local geriatrics played by Cloris Leachman and Abe Vigoda. At the end of the film, Prancer makes a full recovery and flies off into the night sky on Christmas Eve to join Dasher, Dancer and the gang. And in case you were curious, the reindeer and the caribou are essentially the exact same animal — the latter is the North American term used to describe the Arctic and sub-Arctic antlered deer in a non-domesticated, non-Christmas-y context. The natural habitat of the animal includes the woodlands and/or tundra of Siberia, Norway, Alaska, Canada, Greenland and Finland.


Wally Walrus  “The Beach Nut,” “Puny Express,” “Wacky-Bye, Baby” etc.


Finally, there's Wally Walrus: frequently hungry, hot-tempered, dim-witted and prone to singing “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” WW was a blubbery, German-accented fixture of cartoons released by Walter Lantz Productions throughout the 1940s and early 1950s. Thought to be of Swedish origin despite the bad Kraut brogue, Wally was essentially to Woody Woodpecker what Elmer Fudd was to Bugs Bunny. That is, he was one of the super-annoying bird’s most persistent adversaries. And Wally wasn’t the only cold climate anthropomorphic critter to find stardom through Walter Lantz cartoons: There was also Chilly Willy, a pancake-loving penguin with poor circulation who defied his species’ natural range by taking up residence in Alaska with a pooch named Smedley.


Click for photo credits

Photo credits:

Snowy owl: chbaum/Shutterstock


Polar bear:


Wally: YouTube

Matt Hickman ( @mattyhick ) writes about design, architecture and the intersection between the natural world and the built environment.

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