The only time, as a movie critic, that I really find my position insufferable is on those weeks that I pull the short straw and end up stuck with the latest CGI crapfest. In fact, I can usually find something martyrish in reviewing the truly horrible films, those starring the likes of Vin Diesel or Tim Allen. But CGI films — it’s a Sisyphean task, like the painstaking mundanity of shelving library books. As soon as you put away one cart, there’s another one waiting for you at the circulation desk. And all CGI movies blend into one another — talking animals, flatulence humor, and voice work from Hollywood superstars, wasting their goodwill for a few extra dollars. Take the stellar Cars out of the equation, and the only animated feature I can even remember from this past year is Over the Hedge, a gem of a movie, bolstered by good-natured suburban satire and a solid Ben Folds soundtrack.
Happy Feet, on the surface, seemed to offer little respite — more talking animals (penguins), the grating voice work of Robin Williams, and worse: It’s a goddamn musical, which meant that the animals would not only talk, they’d sing, a thought that was almost too much to bear. All week I’ve been calling the film Happy #@%# Feet, knowing that it would only inspire different forms of the word, “motherfuck.” I didn’t even bother researching the cast or the production team, believing I’d only need to offer up profanity-laced metaphors for this review.
And then, during the screening, I was startled to see the name George Miller, the director not only behind the Mad Max films, but more importantly, the two remarkable Babe movies, both of which had the power to melt away the family-film kryptonite around my tiny, shriveled little heart. And wouldn’t you know it, Happy Feet ain’t half motherfucking bad, despite the presence of Robin Williams. It’s not your run-of-the-mill CGI film, either: It’s got a message that’s not tied up into some “Full House” brand of morality, but in cultural, societal, and ecological themes. In fact, there are times when Happy Feet is downright gloomy and even a bit psychedelic — not your standard kiddie-friendly fare, though there is plenty for the young ‘uns to enjoy, if they are not scared away by the doomsday fate of the Antarctic.
Happy Feet begins innocently enough, offering a slight satiric twist to March of the Penguins: The penguins’ mating habits are linked to their singing voices. It is the destiny of each penguin to find its literal “soul” mate, as do Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and Memphis (Hugh Jackman), who are conjoined by a medley of Prince’s “Kiss” and “Heartbreak Hotel.” Jackman’s character is, somewhat disagreeably, based on Elvis, and during the egg-warming phase of reproduction, his hips get the best of him and he loses his egg temporarily.
It’s long enough, apparently, to produce a Peyton Manning-like birth defect in his offspring, Mumble (Elijah Wood). And no, that defect is not the visage of a baby who looks as though his mother gave birth to him pressed up against a brick wall; rather, he’s got the happy feet of Colts QB about three seconds before he gives way to a Belicheckian right-side overload blitz. Unfortunately, he also has the singing voice of a Michael Vick long-ball — it’s not only hideous, but it’s off target by about seventeen octaves.
Mumble is subsequently ostracized by a whitebread penguin community with little appreciation for his Sammy Davis Jr. toe tapping. Fortunately, he’s scared to the other side of Antarctica by a leopard seal (which is equally as terrifying as the real one in March of the Penguins), where Mumble befriends a smaller, Hispanic penguin civilization that doesn’t show the same intolerance for his lack of a singing voice. His best friend on the other side is Ramon (Williams), and the head of that community is a guru, Lovelace (Williams), so anointed because of the mysterious rings around his neck. The rings, of course, are plastic ring beverage holders left by aliens/humans.
You can probably guess where Happy Feet goes from there. But if you think it’s a family-friendly cautionary tale about the dangers of human consumption habits and the growing extinction of penguins, you’d only be half right. It’s not that family friendly. In fact, it is — at times — downright harrowing.
Mumble goes back to his penguin civilization and is chased away again by a group of elders who amount to the religious right, and argue that he has to abandon his
homosexuality happy feet and act normal — there is a little genetic/hereditary undercurrent to the speech, and I was actually surprised that Miller didn’t enroll John Lithgow to reprise his role from Footloose here, so anti-dancing was the lead elder.
So, Mumble travels off to find the aliens/humans, to ask them if they’d kindly stop ruining the penguins’ homeland. Regrettably, the humans don’t understand anything he says, except — eventually — his happy feet. Mumble then has a homing device strapped to him, so that humans can follow him back to Antarctica and revel in the tap-dancing joy of the penguins.
It is here, actually, that Miller really brings home the point. He seems to suggest that there is something hypocritical about the voyeuristic pleasure humans get in seeing a film like March of the Penguins, but that it doesn’t inspire them to take any sort of action to prevent the harm we are causing to their continent. The message, undeniably, is filtered through children-friendly songs, mostly taken from “American Idol” regulars, like Stevie Wonder and Queen, but observant parents — who aren’t too busy pleading with their child to stop bawling in the theater — might actually take something away from it.
And the best thing, I think, about Happy Feet is that a few of the tykes in attendance might take something away from it too. I’m the last person in the world to raise a stink about the environment — I may be the only movie critic left who hasn’t seen An Inconvenient Truth. But that doesn’t stop me from hoping that the kids get the message someday, before that March of the Penguins is just a lonely walk into extinction.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He is currently halfway through a three-year ‘sentence’ in upstate, NY, where he lives with his wife. You may email him, or leave a comment below.
A Somewhat Convenient Truth
Happy Feet / Dustin Rowles
Film Reviews | November 17, 2006 | Comments ()