Reviewby Carl Kimlinger, Jun 5th 2012
Polar Bear's Café
Episodes 1-6 Streaming
Polar Bear runs a café. Lazy Panda finds it one day while searching for a job. He quickly becomes a regular despite Polar Bear turning him down flat when he asks for work. Together with Polar Bear and fellow regular Penguin, he eats, chats, hangs out, and has a variety of everyday adventures with the people and animals he meets.
Look at that synopsis. Frankly the show sounds like the worst kind of whimsy. Under normal circumstances by the third episode of talking animals acting out meaningless vignettes and nattering on about nothing in particular we'd be ready to spit and roast the fuzzy little buggers. You can put away your bonfires and carving knives now. While Polar Bear's Café is certainly whimsical, and about as far from substantial as a show can get, it's also dryly and sometimes hugely funny. Keep it up critters; no one wants this to end in Panda burgers. They taste terrible.
Any given episode of Polar Bear might feature a conversation about, oh, say smartphones, move onto a thrilling bit about riding a rush-hour bus, and conclude with a soul-searching quest to drop a few pounds. The show is thoroughly devoted to being light and generally pointless. There's a long bit about Polar Bear driving Panda and Penguin around, a half-episode about watching cherry blossoms in the park, another about Panda getting a job at the zoo (as a part-time panda), and still another about Polar Bear and Penguin visiting him at the zoo. Which is a long-winded way of saying that the show has a lot of down-time. For most of the show we're just watching animals do stuff humans do and waiting for something to hit our funny bones. The show is smart enough to use its down time to neatly delineate the personalities of Panda, Polar Bear and the rest, and there's something genuinely surreal about the blasé way animals and humans rub elbows in Polar Bear's city, but that's hardly enough to fill the emptiness.
Even the show's sense of humor can seem cowed by the big stretches of animals doing nothing much. For the most part, the series is content to get by on smiles and knowing chuckles. There are lots of minor sight gags, like Panda cramming himself into an overhead compartment to avoid crowding on the train, and lots of little recurring jokes. Jokes about the nature of the various animals (never send a sloth to get drinks), Panda's panda-centrism, or Polar Bear's love of puns. Especially the puns. Not an episode passes without Polar Bear going through a whole pun routine. A lot of it is pretty funny. The half-episode where Panda goes to a tough bar for instance (lions and tigers and crocodiles, oh my!), or the running joke about how much pandas like to sleep (anywhere, any time, and in any position). It's all very deadpan, very pleasant, but also mild to a fault.
Every once in a while, though, out of nowhere the show will hit one completely out of the park. In the middle of a meandering conversation Llama will whip out a tongue-based smartphone technique. A discussion of special-event parfaits will lead to a grisly desert-eating spectacle. An episode about dieting will be interrupted by a terrifying look at Panda's “ideal shape.” Some episodes seem to be heading nowhere when they're actually getting ready to make you snort out a lung. Panda and Polar Bear's trip to Grizzly's bad-boy bar idles along like a fish-out-of-water trifle until it hits you with the lessons Panda takes away about being “wild.” Not every (half) episode hits such a high, but in a backward kind of way that works to the show's advantage. None of the jokes would be as funny as they end up being if you weren't constantly being lured into a whimsical stupor before they land.
Polar Bear is an interesting-looking show. Unlike most anthropomorphized animals, its animals look exactly like the real deal. Polar Bear isn't some cuddly caricature, he's an Ursus maritimus: a huge, white, predatory mammal with paws the size of dinner plates. Ditto everyone else. It makes for a lot of odd visual humor, as when Penguin asks for a shoulder massage and Polar Bear's large predatory appendages do exactly what they're supposed to—which is most definitely not soothing cramped muscles. Or when the animals try to use smartphones that were very much not designed for, say, penguin use. It also puts the strangeness of their world, where animals walk and work right alongside humans, in stark relief. Humans, by the way, are drawn with similar realism. Sasako, the young woman who Polar Bear hires instead of Panda, has such an easy, natural beauty that she's far and away the cutest thing in the series.
Of the rest of the visuals, the series' backgrounds have a gentle painterly beauty, and its sight gags a welcome—and hilarious—naturalness. It isn't exactly complicated or energetic, so it rarely pushes the animators far enough to see their limitations. Once in a great while a movement will necessitate a still or some implied motions, but not often enough to qualify as a visual flaw. Mostly the animators focus on making the animals move in realistically animal-like ways, and mostly they succeed. Like the visuals, Kenji Kondo's score is simple and playful and generally fairly restrained. Overall it's a soft, surprisingly realistic series style-wise.
Fair warning, though. It's also a series that is very much to be enjoyed one long, leisurely, and periodically uproarious episode at a time. It's very easy to get fed up with the long dead spots between or leading up to its periodic flashes of comedic brilliance. And even easier to start starving for substance. Take it one episode at a time, though, and it's a right fun time.
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : C+
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : B
+ Characters, both animal and human, look fantastic; nice, dry sense of humor; a few of the jokes can just slay you.
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