Happy Feet

Commie Liberal Propaganda for Kids!

I had misgivings about Happy Feet the first time I saw a trailer for it some eighteen months ago. The teaser trailer really said nothing, but I had to wonder how a film about penguins could be visually interesting. Yesterday I swallowed those misgivings and … they turned out to be correct. Happy Feet was not visually interesting. Nor, at one hour and 48 minutes, was its story tight or involved enough.

Happy Feet has some moments of high enjoyment and quite a few good laughs, but to say that makes it a good movie is like saying that a zombie movie is good because it has a couple of zombies in it: meeting the most basic of expectations a scarce few times is nothing impressive. It’s not a terrible film, but I couldn’t bring myself to enjoy it.

That said, I’m looking forward to reports of children nagging their parents to buy them penguins, then proceeding to flush said penguins down the toilet to freedom.

Mumble (Elijah Wood) is an emperor penguin who can’t sing. As this is how the penguins attract each other, he worries that he will never find love. His spontaneous tap dancing frightens the religious orthodoxy, and they blame his abnormality on the sudden dearth of fish in the sea that is leading them to starvation. With the Adelie Amigos, Mumble sets across Antarctica to discover precisely where the fish are going.

Part of the reason that I wanted to see this film was because of the conservative backlash against it. Mothers complained about having to explain sex to their children, despite the fact that the narration explains quite clearly that the penguins sing to each other to find their love, and that love leads to eggs.
The second cause for complaint is the rejection of religion on the part of Mumble, although one may more accurately say that religion rejects him. This film is actually a challenge to fundamentalism and orthodox thought that won’t bend despite an obvious need to. It’s not an actual challenge to orthodox religion … it’s actually a penguin edition of Footloose with less punches and jokes about marijuana possession.
The third reason for retribution is that the film criticises overfishing, thereby disrupting the balance of nature. I’m never going to be sure why you have to be liberally minded to think that ecosystems, environmental sustainability and animals capable of maintaining their own communities are important things, but I’m going to have to accept it.

I said to my friend Tony “why do we want to protect penguins anyway? We don’t eat them, and they don’t eat us.”
“That’s right,” said Tony. “They’re pointless!”
“What do we need Antarctica for at all?”
“Let’s get rid of all of the animals and drill for oil!”

There you have it: penguins are stupid and pointless. Why make a movie about them for?

So I’ve addressed their complaints, and I have some of my own.
There are so many songs in this film that very few of them are actually coherent. Nicole Kidman’s breathless Marilyn Monroe impression for her role of Norma Jean makes the opening song rather hard to decipher, and Brittany Murphy’s own version of “Somebody to Love” is disappointing simply because she isn’t Freddie Mercury.
The Adelie Amigos are easily the film’s best part, as Mumble makes his way to the snow and stumbles on an Argentinean contingent of penguins that exist simply to give attitude to each other. Robin Williams plays not one but two of these scamps, and bucks up the movie immeasurably. Whenever these little fellows spoke, many of my misgivings melted.
True, the very existence of these Adelie Amigos is a textbook way of expanding the film’s appeal, but if it works it scarcely matters. The penguin designers actually did something good with them, in that they made each one of the five look different.
The film’s lack of visual interest comes largely from the fact that every penguin looks almost exactly the same, and they are not very strongly anthropomorphised: they just look like penguins. While obviously it would be difficult to make thousands of penguins look different, the key players aren’t different enough. I turned out almost entirely right: Happy Feet is boring to look at. It’s hard to believe that no one actually registered the fact that penguins don’t really have legs, and so the aesthetic appeal of tap dancing is largely lost. I accept that it’s all technically impressive, but a technically impressive film isn’t the same as a visually impressive, or even good, film. The only part that I really liked looking at was the excellent integration of human actors and penguins. They got around the fact that CG humans aren’t always great by just using real people.

The story of Happy Feet is not developed well enough. The scenes of his father disapproving and his mother loving him unconditionally as the penguins all around him judged could have been done better and, as a character, Mumble has very little personality beyond his prodigious dancing ability. The narrator, who turns out to be Robin William’s Lovelace, holds the hand of the audience too much, but this point I may have to concede as the film was made for children.
Unfortunately, even after we’ve been through the epic journeys, the film presents us with an incredibly depressing situation that resolves itself in a fashion that entirely overestimates humanity’s capacity for kindness. I would have been glad that it was over except that George Miller resorted to using that “pull out to the universe” technique that I have grown to despise in film. I can’t remember the last time I actually appreciated that, but I can say without fear that it makes absolutely no sense in a movie about dancing penguins.

You’ll find that Happy Feet is so dissatisfactory primarily because of the moral of the story, which is best summed up by Mr. Burns in The Simpsons episode “Two Dozen and One Greyhounds”: “I swear I’ll never wear any clothing made from an animal … that can do an amusing trick.”
The humans choose to save the penguins because of their novelty. Endangered species of the world, take note: act cuter!

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2 Responses to Happy Feet

  1. Wavatar Jen says:

    I dunno. How would they make the penguins more anthropomorphised and more distinctive? Emperor Penguins all look the same as it is; generally the same height, the same markings and the same squat body shape. On top of that, being streamlined swimmers with very short feathers means they also lack a lot of features that other animated (3D or 2D) films would otherwise use to make certain animal characters unique, like different “hairstyles” seen in the lions and hyenas in “The Lion King”, for instance. It’d be like trying to make individuals in a pod of bottlenosed dolphins look distinctive.

    Although I must say I found it hilarious that the pale yellow markings on the females’ chests suggested the presence of breasts, and the black markings along their waists curved inward like curvy hips. Oh, and don’t forget the pink beaks.

  2. Wavatar Alex says:

    I think that aesthetic is a personal thing, and I don’t know how they could have fixed it. Perhaps they could have not made a movie about dancing penguins, but obviously that’s not the solution.

    I would rather have seen a whole movie made with Madagascar penguins than this.

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