2006Director: George Miller
Cast: The voices of Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Nicole Kidman
hatever else it may be, Happy Feet is one defiantly strange movie. Billed as the fall’s kiddie movie par excellence, it does exhibit Disney-esque inclinations throughout its first half, with its nods to adorable furry babies, the desire for the esteem of one’s parents, and of course, attaining the unattainable girl. By the time Mumble, the movie’s hot-footing hero, starts on his redemptive quest to find out why the penguin food supply is suddenly disappearing and prove his worth to his family and friends, there’s a definite element of We’ve All Been Here Before.
But it’s at this point where Happy Feet takes a hard left turn into darkness, political provocation, and unadorned weirdness. Enveloping itself in a mood of haunted melancholy, the film emphasizes the foreboding vastness of both nature and man’s unapologetic dominance over the earth, as Mumble’s quest turns from heroic journey to grimly quixotic struggle against impossible odds. What, the movie asks, is one little penguin to do? As we near the story’s end, Happy Feet shows Mumble having hallucinations in a zoo that conjures up uncanny echoes of a concentration camp, and a legion of traumatized children seem destined to recall this movie as their first introduction to the themes of Franz Kafka.
Of course, Happy Feet does circle around to the inevitable uplifting ending, although so unconvincingly that one is forced to wonder about studio pressure from executives astonished by the rushes they found themselves screening. The end result is a film of real intelligence and wit, with a social statement that pulls no punches and a sophistication that prefers to challenge its audience rather than comfort them with the usual animated pabulum.
None of this should have been so surprising, either to delighted critics or to the rising chorus of the right-wing commentariat, complaining of all things from an anti-business bias to a hidden homosexual agenda (oh, those sneaky gays!). Australian director George Miller, after all, had already made a remarkably smooth pivot from directing the post-apocalyptic Mad Max movies to taking on “children’s fare” with the brilliant Babe: Pig in the City. From that perspective, Happy Feet is just another in a long line of Miller films that feature an all too unusual combination of slam-bang entertainment with a smart, well-honed social conscience.
The plot, at least initially, leans heavily on the “lead character just wants to fit in, but learns to celebrate his differences” trope so common to recent children’s movies, although Happy Feet does so better than most. In the world of the film, penguins do a great deal of their communicating through song—they all have beautiful singing voices that they’re willing to show off at the drop of a hat, and each penguin even has a “Heart Song” that best represents their true selves (it’s worth mentioning that the film makers use this as an excuse to rely heavily on a terrific pop soundtrack). Poor little Mumble (Elijah Wood) is the only penguin of his species who can’t sing—in fact, his voice could charitably be described as a strangled honk. What he can do, however, is dance up a storm, and it’s clear that from the moment of his birth, the little fella best expresses himself through a serious sense of rhythm. This fails to placate his nervous parents (Hugh Jackman, channeling Elvis, and Nicole Kidman, doing a terrific parody of Marilyn Monroe’s breathy sensuousness) or the ossified religious elders who run penguin society and see this kind of “difference” as inherently dangerous. Mumble’s deviations soon get him blamed for the mysterious shortage of fish, and desperate to save his species and prove himself worthy, he decides to trek across the South Pole and find the rumored “aliens” who are responsible for the fish disappearing. But he’s not alone—six Latino penguins come along for comic relief, including a comparatively restrained Robin Williams.
To this point, Happy Feet works wonderfully as an exquisitely well-crafted visual extravaganza with a razor-sharp sense of humor. Taking advantage of the fact that March of the Penguins has become a common cultural reference point, Miller and his script writers have fun both giving an appreciative nod to the documentary and wickedly skewering our expectations of penguin life. There are also several marvelous set pieces, including Mumble’s epic journey across the ocean and a penguin’s-eye chase sequence involving a killer whale that probably surpasses anything you’ll see in an action movie all year. But as Mumble slowly begins to learn more about the technologically sophisticated “aliens” (guess who) and becomes increasingly determined to track them down and stop them from ravaging the oceans, the film heads into progressively darker territory that culminates in Mumble’s capture and imprisonment in a glass-encased zoo. There are moments here that can only be described as surreal, as Mumble’s reality begins to fragment, before he is finally rescued by a deus ex machina that, while fitting reasonably well within the context of the film, is also a substantial cop-out. Perhaps it’s impolitic to complain about such things in a kids’ movie, but a lousy ending is a lousy ending.
Nevertheless, as an example of a film that transcends its kiddie origins and becomes a thoughtful, well-crafted movie that also appeals to intelligent adults, Hollywood rarely does better than Happy Feet. Perhaps owing to its non-American origins, the great strength of the movie is ultimately its refusal to treat children as infinitely breakable beings who deserve nothing more than a reassuring pat on the head. While Happy Feet provides all the adventure and humor you could possible ask for from an outstanding animated film, its makers also apparently decided that what children need developed more than anything else is their intelligence and ability to question as well as respect the authority figures in their lives. For that, the film deserves not just our praise, but our thanks.
Happy Feet is currently playing in wide release.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2006-12-11