Monday, December 6, 2010

Part Cerebral, Part Simplistic, Happy Feet Is The New Fern Gully And A Worthwhile Film!

The Good: Amazing computer animation, Great story, Decent DVD bonus features
The Bad: I'm not wild about the happy ending.
The Basics: A surprisingly deep satire about how faith-based communities help promote environmental destruction, Happy Feet plays as a ridiculously simple children's movie about a dancing penguin looking for love.

Last year, my wife was in a car accident and for a few weeks after, I dotted upon her. Part of my doting means the line "Whatever you want to watch, darling, we can watch!" frequently escapes my lips. So, last night, that meant watching Happy Feet, one of the few remaining movies on her shelf I have not yet seen, nor was I in any rush to. That said, I enjoyed Happy Feet quite a bit, despite its nature, which is basically that of a film with a split personality disorder.

Happy Feet works very hard, not to present itself as a computer animated version of March Of The Penguins, but rather to be taken seriously as a movie with strong messages and a stark, realistic "kill or be killed" view of nature. The movie, while filled with music and dancing, features perilous moments when the protagonists are nearly killed and the viewer has the sense that the world of the penguins is pretty much done for. I liked that aspect to it; it makes for a strong cautionary tale for viewers of all ages about what will happen to the environment and how the biosphere is interconnected.

But then, the movie is also silly and musical and that works far less well for me. After a problematic spell where the pace of the movie grinds to a near-halt, a happy ending breaks out and this separates the movie from the film it could have been from the film it became. The potential of the movie was not realized because instead of continuing with a complexity and realism (well, as much as a movie with singing and dancing penguins could have) of the first three-quarters, the finale becomes a very typical children's movie and that is a real letdown.

Through the love of emperor penguins Memphis and Norma Jean, Mumble is born. Memphis, terrified the baby might somehow be wrong because he let the egg slip while he was guarding it, is horrified to learn that Mumble is unable to sing, but he tap dances instead. Given that songs are how emperor penguins find a mate for life, Mumble's inability to sing is potentially the end of their family. Mumble does his best to attract the attentions of Gloria, the hottest penguin on the tundra, but his dancing disturbs her and he wanders off into exile.

On his own, Mumble meets up with dancing penguins, led by Ramon and he encounters their sage, Lovelace. Lovelace has a six-pack's plastic rings around his neck and Mumble sees this as a way to find the "aliens" responsible for the diminishing fish supply. With his friends in tow, he goes in search of the humans in an attempt to appeal to their better nature to stop overfishing in the frozen seas.

Happy Feet is heavy on charm and a cute soundtrack. Tons of pop-rock standards from Elvis and Prince are included, re-recorded by the voice actors who play the penguin parts. Hugh Jackman does a decent interpretation of Elvis and Nicole Kidman does a passing impression of Prince with her vocals.

But while the charm is certainly high to try to get children interested in the movie, the conservative orthodoxy that Mumble and Gloria have to combat will go well over the heads of most kids. Noah the Elder is a reactionary who despises Mumble's dancing and wants the penguins to do nothing but pray and hope the diminishing fish supply corrects itself. The metaphor here is clear and unabashedly progressive: praying solves nothing whereas stopping the humans and interceding on behalf of those being abused by environmentally unsustainable practices offers a chance for the penguin population to survive. The writers illustrate well how the "sit back and wait" folks offer no chance for change and their solutions only breed stagnation. It is only by Mumble defying them that the penguins even have a chance to learn what is causing the food shortage, much less do anything about it.

In this way, Happy Feet is much like Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest; the movie attempts to illustrate how taking action is preferable to hoping problems with the environment go away. Indeed, these writers have an even more wicked sense of irony than those who wrote Fern Gully. In Fern Gully, the enemy was evil incarnate working with mankind and there was little in the way of metaphor. Evil had to be fought and good could triumph or be destroyed. In Happy Feet, Noah advocates blind hope and there is something particularly ridiculous about watching the penguin population wait and pray while Mumble goes off to try to save them all. Here, apathy is as much of a killer as Man is and the film is smart enough to acknowledge that without forcing change, without attempting change, fear and orthodoxy are likely to prevail.

But Happy Feet is unlikely to spawn a whole new generation of liberal conservationists because the ending is sugar-coated and much of the time in the movie is spent with penguins singing, dancing and doing cute things like falling in love and making hearts underwater. Clearly, Warner Brothers is taking the buckshot approach to marketing with Happy Feet by including an ethnically-diverse voice cast and characters in the movie. The penguins Mumble ends up with who dance are essentially latinos and the soundtrack, in addition to featuring classic American pop and rock, also features contemporary rap (Gloria's friend Seymour is voiced by Fat Joe).

But by and large, the voice acting is good. Brittany Murphy is sufficiently bubbly and musical as Gloria, Hugo Weaving is appropriately menacing as Noah and Robin Williams makes both Ramon and Lovelace fun with his comedic vocals. But it is Elijah Wood that helps Happy Feet win the "recommend" with me. Wood plays Mumble and when he plaintively calls on people to listen and stop destroying the oceans, his voice resonates with an innocence that sells the argument.

The computer animation in Happy Feet looks amazing, with incredible detailing on all of the penguins. Viewers need not look terribly closely to see individual feather movement and the downy newborn penguins looks amazingly realistic. While there is a lot of stylized movement (these are singing penguins, after all, who saunter and kiss), the sea lions and fish have almost lifelike movement and textures and in scenes where they are present, the movie is actually somewhat frightening.

On DVD, there are two new scenes, as well as two music videos. As well, famed dancer and choreographer Savion Glover illustrates dance moves used in the movie. The bonus features are fun, but they are clearly intended to promote the surface, child-oriented elements of Happy Feet as opposed to the serious, adult message that preoccupies older viewers.

Even so, there is enough in Happy Feet to enthusiastically recommend, even if objectively, it is a film more fractured than cohesive.

For other animated films, please check out my reviews of:
Despicable Me
Toy Story 3


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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  1. An even better animated movie (about penguins) is Surf's Up. Very unique style and a true classic...

    1. I'll have to check that one out! Thanks for the recommend!

      Thanks for reading and thanks for the comment!