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Happy Beal

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Warning -- May cause sissiness in otherwise burly, unshaven men.

To those of you who may have avoided Happy Feet as yet another CG, 3D, celebrity-voiced, anthropomorphized animal movie with predictably amazing visuals, energetic musical numbers, heartfelt lessons, and characters tailor made to move product, let me say this: it is not what you think.

Well, actually, it is exactly what you think. But it’s something else, too. Happy Feet is a lot of things, not the least of which is easily the best movie I’ve seen this year, and my new personal favorite CG movie of them all.

Our world will never want for gay penguin jokes.

The first third or so of the film could easily be seen as just another entry into the talking CG animals genre, albeit a nicely done one. It starts of fun and funny, and makes great use of familiar music — Stevie Wonder, Prince, Queen. And those little penguins are so fucking cute it’s hard not to be cynical (especially if you’ve seen the tie-in packages of Fruit By The Foot. Get it? Happy FEET, Fruit By The FOOT? That’s synergy!). But there are touches here and there that suggest something better than average — in an art direction that actually finds beautiful new ways to use CG instead of just settling on ramping the technology up; in short parallels drawn between penguin and human societies; in the way Robin Williams is actually funny with his hyperactive voicings.

So fucking cute I want to jam a fork in my eye.And then around the midpoint, and after a few really nice bits of foreshadowing, the plot takes a turn to become something else that is also nothing particularly new: the environmental message from the animals’ innocent point of view. It’s still fun and visually arresting, and there’s an amazing action sequence involving killer whales (aka dolphins) doing that psycho thing we all know they do to penguins in real life. The film was still completely enjoyable, but I was really fearing that it was gonna be just another simplistic message movie. An obvious and banal moral tacked-on to make parents feel good about letting their kids buy the DVDs and any other junk with a tapdancing penguin on it.

But I think that in both of these cases, the by-the-books first act, and the second act by-the-books gear shift, George Miller was just suckering us in. This is the guy who wrote Babe, a simple, sweet tale of talking animals with a fitting subtext gently laidWhere's his other hand? beneath, and when that became a big hit, he followed it by writing and directing the manic fever dream that is Pig in the City. Well, Happy Feet goes a bit mad itself in the last half hour or so, in the process slapping me in my cynical face for ever doubting it.

The environmental comment they’re offering is far from the simplistic “animals are people too” one I thought they were building to; it’s something remarkable and complex and difficult which I am certain I have not seen before in film, at least not in one accessible to the kiddies. It’s one I tend to agree with strongly, and maybe this admission will mean a serious hit to my perceived machismo, but when I realized where they were going, man did I start to cry. I’ve dropped a tear here and there over a movie before, but always in some emotional, sentimental climax. This was not an especially emotional moment in the film; it was sheer admiration of the complexity of thought in this dancing penguin movie that nailed me so.

I’m not going to say here just what the true idea behind Happy Feet is, because I also think it could be open to debate, and I wouldn’t want to taint another person’s interpretation. I just want to make sure nobody’s writing this one off. It is not just good, it is amazing. It has already made a gazillion bucks from parents hoping to distract their kids, and from boyfriends hoping to make their girls helpless at the sight of so much cute, and now it’s time to give it a few more. Go, intelligenista! See Happy Feet! laebmada

That's when they slipped away to ''plant a seed of discontent.''

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Monday, April 30, 2007 9:43 am

    Just saw this the other day.

    I wouldn’t say I walked away gushing with praise or anything, but I agree that just after the killer whale (aka dolphin) sequence, the film really shifts into high gear, and creates some high drama – it verges on terrifying.

    The cynical side of me wanted them to end the movie with Mumble realizing his horrific fate, but I realize this would have been impossible – you can’t leave the kids crying, or even confused. However, I think the ending could have been a bit more daring, just to really hammer home the point to the kids.

    For me, Happy Feet has a lot of the typical, standard, CG stuff that dominates the Pixar films (and I mostly didn’t like the music, which is a personal taste issue), but, it also has some of the best moments I think ever created for the child-driven CG market, and certainly some of the most complex themes.

  2. Monday, April 30, 2007 8:31 pm

    Wow…all throughout the movie I thought the main character’s name was Mambo. And yet I passed a sonogram with flying colours a couple weeks later.

  3. Monday, April 30, 2007 10:38 pm

    So then your baby healthy, Drew? Thank God.

  4. Tuesday, May 1, 2007 7:23 am

    I thought it was Mambo too, until I looked it up.

    Oh yeah, and congratulations, Drew.

  5. Tuesday, May 1, 2007 11:04 am

    I thought it was Mumbles, with Mambo as a nickname the little girl penguin gave him.

    And oh, did that little girl penguin eventually fill out… Oh my.

  6. Sunday, February 21, 2010 11:01 pm

    Okay — finally saw this.

    The thing about it that I thought was a bit weird was how it seems to be suggesting that the animals need to change too in order to survive. But it’s kind of weird in the way it does it — like, the penguins were too boring for people to care about when they just doing their normal singing thing, but as soon as they did something interesting to people (the dancing) the people started to care. So it’s like they have to perform for their survival.

    There’s obvious truth to this and real-world analogizing, but the strange thing about it is that you’d think such a message would be delivered in a cynical way; here, though, it seems to be presented in a positive light — that’s how Mumble saved his fellow penguins.

    Is that what you took out of it?

  7. Tuesday, February 23, 2010 1:00 am

    That is definitely a weird thing to suggest, like nature needs to play on our terms if it wants to stick around — though it has certainly worked for the cows (at least in terms of numbers). And that’s not actually the thing I love about Happy Feet, just one of the odd little takes that I appreciate.

    The thing I thought was so great was how the hero of this seemingly environmental-message kids’ film was the scientist desperate to find the real answers to his questions, not willing to just accept the easy answers his entire society was used to accepting. And then, as he discovered all of the rusty, destructive discards, the giant machines that, in an environmental conservation context, are always symbols of the terrible things humanity is doing to the planet, Mumble felt awe.

    Even when he came back, after being imprisoned in that trippy zoo and realizing that humans were taking all the Antarctic animals’ food without the slightest consideration about how it effects them, he still found all their accomplishments amazing and admirable.

    It’s so rare (is there even a single other example?) for an environmental-message movie to put such effort into the notion that progress and development are great things — even to the point of suggesting that they are more important than protecting the natural way (though really, I think the overall message is one of compromise and careful, considerate development).

    I think this movie could be read in a lot of different ways, from pro-environment to screw-the-environment to kids-want-their-parents-to-spend-money-on-dancing-penguin-merchandise. And whatever ideas you get from it, it’s delivering them from very different angles than you usually find. Including how it’s doing so as a full-on kids’ movie.

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