30 April 2007

Happy Feet

Directed by: George Miller (with Warren Coleman & Judy Morris)
Written by: Warren Coleman, John Collee, George Miller & Judy Morris

Grade: B+

In the past few years, audiences have been inundated with a smattering of inferior animated filmfare, and for a long time—its entire first hour—Happy Feet feels like it's going to be just one more entry into those dubious ranks. As the story of a tap-dancing penguin, Mumbles, born an outcast into a society of melismatic singers, it spends far too much time mining popular music, from the Beatles to Grandmaster Flash, for obnoxious musical numbers; as with Moulin Rouge, its gaudy display of pop culture savvy is a bit exhausting, or worse—unbearable. Mumbles, ostracized from his community for his flippery flamboyance, befriends a gang of Mexican (!?) penguins from a nearby colony, led by a sassy penguin voiced by Robin Williams. (Williams also voices a preacher-penguin and, just in case you’re worried the film might not have enough Robin Williams, he also narrates. I’ll admit that Williams’ shtick, which is so often grating, has a couple of chuckle-worthy zingers but on the whole, and just like the film itself hitherto, it’s overbearing and abrasive.) The Mexicans take a shine to Mumbles because, well, Mexicans like to party I guess, and you can’t have a party without dancing.

But Happy Feet isn't all fiestas—dark waters rumble beneath its ice floes. That shouldn't come as much of a surprise, since it was directed by George Miller, the man responsible for what's regarded as the grimmest and most disturbing (children’s) movie of the '90s, Babe: Pig in the City. Mumbles' life seems in perpetual jeopardy, whether threatened in the short-term by fellow arctic creatures (eg. predatory birds, killer whales) or in the long-term by environmental degredation. As Miller stops pandering condescendingly to his intended audience around the one-hour mark, Happy Feet suddenly springs to life; the trying musical numbers stop for a while and, with a surprising twist worthy of The Twilight Zone, its darkside bubbles to the surface, and the film becomes a didactic parable on the perils of pernicious commercial fishing practices—seriously. Signs of Mother Nature's declension at the hands of rapacious human beings pervade the slickly animated surface throughout: Williams’ mystic, proselytizing penguin has a six-pack's plastic ring around his neck; a pack of seals ominiously refer to human beings as “annihilators”, noting that they kill everything they come into contact with; and through over-fishing, the polar penguin populations are starving to death.

While it looks, at first, like it'll be just another one of those standard children’s stories that disingenuously celebrates individuality over conformity, Happy Feet's moral scope is far broader. Some of the filmmakers' most vitriolic swipes are taken at political and religious conservatives, represented by the old order penguins who insist the famine is a punishment from The Great Penguin for Mumbles’ terpsichorean apostasy and the arrival of his new friends (Mexican immigrants); as such, the film's really about overcoming steadfast reactionaries, those who resolutely cling to the status quo and the old line, with creative thinking and problem solving; it's also about using our talents, artistic or otherwise, to make the world a better place. Mumbles' dancing doesn't just get him the girl—it saves his people.