Could Lead to Dancing
I wanted happy. The trailer for Happy Feet promised, you know, silly sweet danceable 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?
Oscars Best Animated Feature 2006