Lowdown: The story of a dancing penguin in a world of singing penguins.
George Miller has directed many films in his life, but I think it is safe to say he will mostly be remembered for directing the Mad Max trilogy. Lately, however, he seems to be focusing on more child oriented work, and the guy who delivered the excellent Road Warrior certainly proved his worth with Babe (even though the sequel was less worthy). Happy Feet is another story though, and despite the hype caused by the Australian-ness of the filmmaker and much of its cast I have to say I didn’t like it in the least.
Happy Feet is yet another computer graphics children’s film that follows most of the conventions set by the genre’s predecessors. The story takes place in a colony of emperor penguins, where apparently each penguin has a “heartsong” that serves to find a mate of the opposite sex (always the opposite sex) by finding someone with a matching song. So, to this couple of penguin lovers, the Australians Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, a baby penguin is born (the un-Australian Elijah Wood). Alas, because his father dropped the egg earlier on, Wood is born defective: he can’t sing. He can, however, dance, yet no one seems interested in this quality. Wood is cast aside as an outsider while the film goes on to thump the message of “accept the stranger” into our heads using the same subtle qualities the Creation Museum uses to promote its agendas.
Wood is cast aside from the rest of the clan but finds the company of a different species of penguins, who happen to speak English with a Mexican accent (and are led by a penguin voiced by Robin Williams, who overall does many voices in Happy Feet). They treat him like an equal, once again emphasizing the “accept the stranger” motif.
When Wood goes back to his clan and has a go at spreading dancing happiness, he finds himself portrayed as a criminal by the clan elders for driving all the fish away with his dancing and leaving his tribe with no food. At this point the film diverts slightly from the previously developed “accept the stranger” motif into something of the likes of “open your mind to the nonconformist” by portraying the elders to be blinded by their religious faiths; it is Wood that tells them the truth, that the fish are being taken away not by their gods but rather by outwardly aliens. The rest of the film then sends Wood on a quest to prove his claim, and the rest of the film becomes the story of how a dancing penguin saves his clan from ecological disaster by dancing before humans. Needless to say, the solution is as contrived and as senseless as the rest of the film.
Happy Feet suffers from a multitude of problems other than the ones already hinted at. First, for a film that pretends to have some scientific basis (and is busy mocking the not scientific), Happy Feet goes way wrong with its portrayal of penguin loyalty. True, a pair of emperor penguins will be loyal to one another, but their loyalty breaks apart after their baby matures and the next year they will seek other partners.
Second, the film is, in many respects, a musical. On its own that’s already pretty bad, but the main problem is that the songs it plays – familiar rock/pop classic standards – have all been redone by contemporary artists with the result being they all sound the same. Thus instead of the music livening up the film I was looking for the remote to fast forward or lower the volume.
Third, while the film is full of Australian talent and some Australian aspects are emphasized – as with certain animals encountered during Wood’s quest featuring very Aussie accents – the film is very much focused on the American market. All the typical pop culture references that films of Happy Feet’s genre tend to be full of (sadly; Ratatouille was the exception) are USA related, and when Wood is caught by humans and gets taken away from his natural habitat he find himself in… the USA. I guess the filmmaker’s business case was well established and they knew where their money would be coming from, but this artificial orientation made me want to puke.
And fourth (I’ll stick with just four), what were the filmmakers trying to achieve with some of the characters? There’s this Lovelace penguin (voiced by Robin Williams) character who is supposed to be like this smart village elder but talks in slogans and generally doesn’t make much sense, yet it’s clear the film wants to portray him in a positive light for reasons that elude me. It also feels inconsistent with the film’s general antagonism towards religion.
Worst scene: The thing about Happy Feet is that it’s all so made to a formula that no scene stands out as particularly mesmerizing or particularly bad. If pressed, I will nominate the choreographed underwater penguin swim scene for the title of “worst”, mainly because it broke new records of artificiality.
Picture quality: For some reason, all these computer animation films look good.
Sound quality: Quite good, directional dialog and all, but far from inspiring.
Overall: Just like manufactured food, Happy Feet feels processed, is tasteless, and overall it will harm you. I see it as a shame that Happy Feet is a film many expect to inspire our children. Commercialized to the Nth degree, this 1.5 out of 5 stars film requires viewers to bring a barf bag along.