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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Happy Feet (review)

Could Lead to Dancing
(Best of 2006)

I wanted happy. The trailer for Happy Feet promised, you know, silly sweet dancable happy, so as long as that promise was fulfilled, I’d have been fine. There’s just not enough pure unadulterated happy in the world, and I could use some of the moment, so that’s all I needed.

I got that within the first twenty minutes of Happy Feet, and then the film took off into realms of wonderful that I never could have seen coming. It would have been accomplishment enough for George Miller (the Babe movies) to achieve all-consuming adorableness that manages to remain devoid of an ounce of icky sappiness, which he does: Fluffy baby penguins dancing and singing and waddling around their world with wide-eyed wonder? You have to have a heart of stone not to be a puddle of goo after coming in contact with that. But rapidly it becomes clear that Miller is not going to be content for his little dancing-penguin movie to be merely cute. He has something to say that it is absolutely imperative that we all hear; he wants Happy Feet to be Important. And damned if he doesn’t succeed in that much harder endeavor, too. Succeeds spectacularly. In a way that makes me want to say this may be the greatest animated movie ever made.
For a good stretch, the film is brilliant simply just by being Moulin Rouge meets March of the Penguins as inspired by that Gary Larson cartoon of the penguin yelling “I gotta be me!” It’s gotta be impossible, of course, with the ridiculous lengths of time required to make an animated film, but Feet seems to assume that its audience has seen March and so understands the bizarre mating cycle the penguins go through: the long trek from the sea, the parents sharing egg duty, the huddle to stay warm in the bitter depths of winter, all that stuff. Because it is all but dispensed with here. The mystery of how penguins hook up, what attracts them to a mate — and how couples find each other again after months of separation — is what Miller (and his coscreenwriters John Collee [Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World], Warren Coleman, and Judy Morris) is concerned with exploring. And he figures that what sounds like nothing more than squawks to our ears are in fact the most melodious of songs to other penguins. And if it’s the songs that intrigue potential mates… well, then, why wouldn’t a penguin named Memphis coo sweet rockabilly songs to the ladies? (Hearing Hugh Jackman [Flushed Away, The Prestige], as the voice of Memphis, do Tom Jones via Elvis Presley might be worth the price of admission alone.) Why wouldn’t he simultaneously be drawn to the breathy tunes of Norma Jean? This isn’t a musical like we’re used to, with the action stopping short for five minutes for a song-and-dance number: this is operatic like Moulin Rouge, little snippets of pop songs, from standards to rap, busting out as needed. (Clever of Miller to cast Nicole Kidman [Bewitched, The Interpreter] as Norma Jean in a near-reprise of her Rouge role.)

But then there’s the son of Memphis and Norma Jean, Mumble (the voice of Elijah Wood [Everything Is Illuminated, Sin City] as an adolescent; before that, he’s all cute baby-talk from cartoon vet Elizabeth Daily: The Incredibles), who can’t find his song, but he sure likes to dance. It ain’t penguin, his father grumbles, but Mom supports her strange son as he goes off on a quest to– well, you know how these stories work.

It’s in Mumble’s journey that Miller’s real purpose shows itself. The film opens in space, zooms in on our planet and down to Antarctica, and right about here, you start to realize that that was not just some cool clever way to segue into the story: this is the film saying, “Welcome to Planet Earth. You may think we’re alone, but we aren’t, and everything we do impacts everyone else. Even cute fluffy dancing penguins.” The penguins have religion: they sing in the dark of winter to turn the Earth and bring back the sun and the warmth, and Mumble’s heresy with this dancing nonsense is angering the Great ’Guin, the tribe’s elders warn. That’s why the fish are disappearing. That’s why the ice is collapsing. Everyone’s a little scared that things are changing for the worse, and no one understands why.

And there’s the real genius of Happy Feet. Miller sucks us into all the cuteness and then pulls back and says, “Ha! You like this? Well, we’re ruining it with our indiscriminate abuse of the planet, and unless we do something soon, it’s gonna disappear.” So Mumble’s journey becomes much more vital than simply finding a way to fit into a culture where he’s an oddball: he becomes the visionary necessary to lead a people to change their ways, even if it’s scary, because not to change is to court ultimate disaster.

Mumble and his people are, of course, us: we have to learn a new dance. The beautiful and touchably real animation, which is perhaps the most photorealistic ever and does not physically anthropomorphize its animal characters any more than is absolutely necessary (like making their beaks move like lips so they can speak). They look like penguins. Their world is alive with all the many colors that ice and snow and water can be. This isn’t a cartoon world — this is the real world. And Miller is daring us to save it, for ourselves and for the penguins. Are they just cute fluffy critters to smile at in a movie? Or do they deserve more from us than that?

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MPAA: rated PG for some mild peril and rude humor

viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb
  • bats

    I was looking forward to this “just because” of the cute penguins. Having read your review (and a few other ones) and knowing a little more about Miller’s subversive (in a good way!) mind, I’m really jazzed about it!

  • And I was expecting this movie to fall somewhere between “meh” and “ick.” But now… now I’ve got to see it, sooner or later, anyway.

  • Jack

    I just came back from seeing this film and I’m still thinking about it. No animation I’ve seen has ever had that effect on me. I think you’re one of the only reviewers I’ve read that actually “gets” the subtext of this film and the different layers of references it makes, both to our world and to filmmaking itself. Just as the penguins needed to entertain the humans in the film to save themselves, George Miller entertains his audience in order to convey a greater message about the fragility of our environment.

  • Wow. I saw this movie last night, and I was simply blown away. You’re right about it succeeding on all levels, and I was impressed by how strongly Miller was willing to attack authority (especially faith-based authority) and the effects of mindlessly allowing others to think for you.

  • Interesting!

  • Thomas

    Bravo for describing the movie as it is, not what others think it should be. An entertaining movie that is also IMPORTANT.

  • CHong

    It’s really an interesting movie as what described by this review.. I’ve never been so attracted and impressed by a cartoon or animation.

  • PeterE

    I can’t wait to take my kids to see this movie – but, just based on what Maryann has writen here, its a pity that we have to setup a conflict between the Great ‘Guin and nature. The Great ‘Guin, after all, created the natural world, and created us with the hearts to care about it and the brains to solve problems. The Great ‘Guin even gave us the capacity to change our religious traditions.

    We inherit the twin traditions of environmental exploitation, defended by the concept of “dominion” in Genesis, and the secular thinking that eliminating Genesis solves the problem. As Stalin and Mao illustrate, atheism does not lead to environmentalism.

  • Roger

    I couldn’t disagree more. I thought the film was awful in so many ways with the exception being the quality of the artwork. Heavy-handed and muddled. Mumble is shunned for not being just like everyone else, then saves the colony by getting everyone to be just like him.

    If you are ranking it on the artwork and animation, I haven’t seen anything better. However, it’s a film, not a painting, and the story has to also work.

  • MaryAnn

    Mumble is shunned for not being just like everyone else, then saves the colony by getting everyone to be just like him.

    I see more like, Mumble is shunned for being different, and saves the colony by getting everyone to recognize the value of change, particularly when your lives depend on it.

    Everyone’s not going to keep dancing the way that Mumble will. But now dancing will be seen to have a value at least as important as singing — both are now vital for the perpetuation of the species.

  • PeterE

    and why is that important?

  • Mat

    I agree with Roger. I just got back from the movie, and I thought it was terrible. I don’t take my kids to a movie to recieve a message about how awful humans are. If this is such a great message, why was it marketed as a feel good children’s animation? Miller got us all onboard to take a feel good – children friendly – trip and then he hijacked it to force feed us a message that wasn’t even well put together. I want my money back Miller!!! What a waste! Why does Hollywood feel like we are interested in hearing their political view points?

  • MaryAnn

    Why is what important, PeterE? Perpetuation of the species?

    I don’t take my kids to a movie to recieve a message about how awful humans are.

    Wait, Mat: So, you don’t want your children to know that our stripping of the planet’s natural resources is hurting other creatures who live here?

    If this is such a great message, why was it marketed as a feel good children’s animation?

    Well, our kids are gonna have to live with the legacy of what we’re doing today. Maybe if we help them understand that we’re driving all the cute, cuddly critters to extinction, they’ll decide they want to save them. Of course, unless we teach our children to take good care of the planet, there won’t be too many of us — humans, penguins, whatever — around after a while, so maybe it doesn’t matter after all.

  • PeterE

    Yes, Maryann, why is perpetuation of the species important?

  • PeterE

    But to comment on Mat’s question, I think educators today go crazy trying to make learning fun, and entertainers go crazy trying to make fun educational.

    Of course, the boundaries are not clear, but somehow there is an ethical boundary that is being crossed when we consistently confuse the two.

    Because we are making our kids into little tyrants, we have to buy the cereal that is kid-tested mother-approved, instead of just mother-approved.

    Similarly if we think we have to teach the kids something (“environmental degradation is a bad thing and is proceeding apace”, for example) we have to make a “package” that is entertaining.

    Where ethics comes into it is that kids don’t even know they are being fed a line, sorry, being taught. Since it is a package it is harder to separate the ideas from the cuddly penguins. And this from the generation that was all about critiquing what we see on TV and not just buying the soap because it is presented by a sexy blonde model-type.

  • MaryAnn

    PeterE: If you think saving an environment habital by human beings is like selling soap, then we are so far apart that I can’t even imagine how to begin talking to you.

    I also think you’re just being a troll when you ask my perpetuation of the species is important, so I shan’t even dignify that with an answer.

  • PeterE

    Of course you are free to ignore me for whatever reason, but you did create this blog.

    1) whether the product sold is soap or environment or God’s love the method can still be manipulation;

    2) I’m looking for an answer to the species question because I belief that liberals don’t have an answer to the question, and I was hoping you could prove me wrong. You might know that the founder of Earth First once argued that the planet would be better off without human beings, so the question is raised: why is the survival of human beings a good thing?

    To save you from having to guess, my theism provides me with an answer to the question. God created humanity in order to have an object for His love, and we have value to the extent that we do that or will be able to do that in the future.

    Its nice to see you use the word “shan’t”; I thought it was disappearing from the vocabulary.

  • Mat

    MaryAnn: What did I say that gave any indication of what I want my kids to know or not know? When going to a movie with my family, my expecation is to be entertained not preached to. Miller had a chance to make a good, entertaining movie AND teach a nice lesson at the same time. For the most part, I was onboard with the movie as it progressed (although I thought there was a couple boarder line jokes specifically for adults that kids did not need to hear). Mumble was an outcast that didn’t give up on himself and he was able to find a place where he fit in. Than Miller takes a *left* turn and tries to stuff in a political message. It ruined the movie. He tried to stuff too much into too small of a time slot. It was too clumsy to work, and, I feel, didn’t belong in the first place.

    What proof do you have to offer that we are “driving all the cute, cuddly critters to extinction”? I think it is unarguable that our methods have an effect on “cute, cuddly critters”, but your claim that we are “driving” them “all” to “extinction” is simply false. A nice emotional argument, but completely without merit. Similar to what we might find on the nightly “news”.

    Can someone please tell me why so many in Hollywood feel that we are interested in knowing their political viewpoints? What great insight do they have?

  • MaryAnn

    It was too clumsy to work, and, I feel, didn’t belong in the first place.

    That’s your opinion. Mine is the opposite.

    What proof do you have to offer that we are “driving all the cute, cuddly critters to extinction”? I think it is unarguable that our methods have an effect on “cute, cuddly critters”, but your claim that we are “driving” them “all” to “extinction” is simply false.

    When the ice is gone, so will they be, except in zoos. Ditto the polar bears.

    Can someone please tell me why so many in Hollywood feel that we are interested in knowing their political viewpoints? What great insight do they have?

    They’re people with opinions. Why shouldn’t they express them? You don’t have to agree with them, but that’s another issue.

  • MaryAnn

    I’m looking for an answer to the species question because I belief that liberals don’t have an answer to the question, and I was hoping you could prove me wrong. You might know that the founder of Earth First once argued that the planet would be better off without human beings, so the question is raised: why is the survival of human beings a good thing?

    Perhaps the planet would be better off without humans. But humans would not be better off if we were all dead. I would have thought that was obvious.

  • PeterE

    So then, human interests are what count? What about the interests of penguins? What if the interests of penguins and humans collide? What worldview guides us towards a solution? Or perhaps more realistically, what happens when the interests of humans and the interests of waterfowl collide? Is that when human interests matter?

  • PeterE

    In the conflict over environmentalism we have one corner screaming for the interests of wildlife (etc) and the other side saying “those folk are a bunch of crazy tree huggers”. Meanwhile in the middle there is a good deal of practical politicking – mediation of interests through politics – which is based more on relative power of those interests than any clear way forward.

    What is needed is a worldview that acknowledges human interests but places them within a framework that also includes our natural environment. The Christian concept of stewardship articulates the general point of view, but it doesn’t give many clues as to how to proceed in any practical situation.

    What I want to point out is that neither left nor right has the answer to this conflict. To look at the left, neither Marx nor Foucault had access to any worldview that could articulate human interests in relation to our environment.

  • MaryAnn

    So then, human interests are what count?

    I didn’t say or imply that. Please don’t put words in my mouth.

    If it’s not too late and we can prevent the poles from melting, it will benefit humans and penguins… in fact, the more of the devastating climate change that is predicted that we can prevent, the more creatures currently alive we can save. I don’t see how that is possibly debatable.

    What I want to point out is that neither left nor right has the answer to this conflict.

    Well, we’d better find it, and very soon, or else we’re looking at an 80-foot rise in sea levels by 2100. The first step is raising a generation for whom concerns about the global climate is innate, something as fundamental to their worldview as, say, the power of TV is to mine.

  • PeterE

    “But humans would not be better off if we were all dead. I would have thought that was obvious.”

    This means: “it is in the interest of humans to survive, therefore human survival is a good thing, stupid”.

    I’m not putting words into your mouth, I’m clarifying the meaning of what you said, and then extrapolating from there (drawing consequences). That’s what philosophers do.

    You remind me of my teenage daughters. When I point out the consequences of their line of thinking they say: “I didn’t SAY that”. But that’s the point. She didn’t say that, so somebody else has to.

  • MaryAnn

    You’re not extrapolating, you’re creating a straw man out of what you think I mean. You want to think that I am saying that because humans want to survive, only human desires matter. It apparently did not cross your mind that I might espouse a perspective that takes into account the fact that survival of humans and survival of other creatures we share the planet with are not mutally exclusive. Even though I have already stated that very idea.

    Just because YOU see only one consequence of a statement does not mean there are not other possibilities that may flow from it.

  • PeterE

    It certainly crossed my mind that that was what you believed (everybody believes that various species including people can co-exist) – I was asking you to articulate philosophically your view of the relationship between humanity and nature.

    But I guess that is not going to happen, as you just take it personally. Bye, its been fun.

  • MaryAnn

    I was asking you to articulate philosophically your view of the relationship between humanity and nature.

    I thought I had. But to recap: Humans are part of nature. We don’t have a relationship WITH nature. We are PART of nature. It remains to be seen whether nature will select us for extinction… and whether we will help nature in her decision. THAT certainly will distinguish us from all the other creatures who have lived on the planet.

  • PeterE

    So don’t worry about it. If we all die through global warming its all part of the natural plan, or non-plan. In any case there is no higher meaning, so if we all die, its OK. You can save your readers from your ecology-preaching and just review movies. Cheers.

  • MaryAnn

    What a bizarre philosophy! Cancer is part of nature, and we try to avoid that. And it most certainly is NOT okay for us all to die, because if there is no “higher meaning” or afterlife, we’d better make the best of the here and now.

  • Mat

    MaryAnn: You should be careful when listening to whom ever told you the sea level is expected to rise 80ft. by 2100. I think they may have picked up on some gulability and could be taking advantage of you. Currently the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a rise of just under 1.6 ft. by 2100, and they have been criticized for having bias IN FAVOR of global warming.

    In any case, I kind of like the warmer weather. If we have to sacrafice penguins and polar bears to get it, so be it. If you want to do something to stop it, try letting off less hot air.

    I think that there are an awful lot of cute cuddly creatures out there that are feeling pretty low right now. Apparently you do not see squirrels, rabbits, brown bears… as cute and cuddly creatures? Or is your argument that global warming is going to take them out as well?

    “They’re people with opinions. Why shouldn’t they express them? You don’t have to agree with them, but that’s another issue.” – because they often times contain as much fact as your 80ft. figure and tragically some people take their word for fact when it is far from it.

  • MaryAnn

    Glad you’re enjoying the warmer weather, Mat. You’re sure to love the desertification of prime farmland, too. And millions of refugees from flooding coastlines? Gonna be a hoot!

  • Mat

    Why don’t you grab a shovel and dig an irrigation ditch on your way? If you would like, we could ramp up our global warming efforts to cut down on the digging. I am not sure how much of the coast we could flood, but we should be able to get you closer if we melt a little extra ice. Alternatively, bring a rake. I’ll start a watermelon farm and put you to work. Either way, you better buy a pair of gloves.

    Can you explain how gloabal warming will cause “desertification” of “prime farmland”? I’ll sit back and listen – gonna be a hoot!

    Keep the facts coming

  • MaryAnn

    Mat, if you Google “global warming desertification,” you’ll get half a million results, including many from scientific sources.

    Soon, there may be plenty of sand for you to keep your head in.

    And while 60 degrees may be pleasant in December, 120 in August is gonna be a bitch.

  • Mat

    MaryAnn, if you Google “what’s your point”, you’ll get 137 million results. Not sure how many of them are from scientific sources. Why don’t you take a look around and find out. But first, why don’t you explain how global warming will cause “desertification” of “prime farmland”. It’s a simple question Bill, and, if you have 500k sites to pull from, it shouldn’t be too hard to lay it out for someone of low intellegence such as myself.

    120 a bitch? We’ll be okay. I’ll even give you an extra half hour break at noon.

    Does your book of fictional facts give average temps over the past 100 years? How about over the past 1,000 years? 2,000 years?

  • MaryAnn

    The point, Mat, is that I am not your teacher. Go learn stuff for yourself. Or don’t. I don’t care.

  • Mat

    I didn’t think you would be able to explain / prove it. You are much better at throwing out B.S. statements than actually making valid points and backing them up, Glib Lib style, gotta love it.

  • MaryAnn

    Boy, you showed me, Mat. I concede to your clearly superior intellect. You win.

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