Happy Feet

From the trailers you might think Happy Feet is a rather silly kids' movie about happy little penguins dancing and singing. It's not. Happy Feet is a true epic. It's Lord of the Rings with flippers. Star Wars with fish. The Lion King with flightless birds instead of predators. A few early reviews from more politically charged writers have rather bizarrely started labeling it as liberal propaganda, but the politically motivated out there are always looking for a reason to stir up red state versus blue state controversy. Yes the movie gets way too preachy in the final act, but there's nothing truly subversive here. Happy Feet is a surprisingly well crafted, grand-scale, heroic adventure. Dismissing it as dancing penguins or Al Gore environmentalism run amok is unfair. It contains bits of both, but as a whole it is neither.

The movie is the first attempt at animation from Mad Max director George Miller, and he doesn't waste a single frame. He takes what might have been a rather simple story of an outsider finding a way to fit in and turns it into a grand and beautiful work of cinematic art. I'm not just talking visuals here, though there's no denying this is absolutely the most stunning computer animated movie ever done by anyone outside of Pixar. It's the story too. This thing is borderline as a kids' movie, it tackles some pretty heavy themes and goes places that not all kids will be able to follow. They'll be wowed by the animation, but the heart of Happy Feet is something so deep and soulful that at least part of it is aimed squarely at adults. Miller's movie goes way beyond the standard kids' movie lessons of family, friends, and acceptance to tread places most pre-teen targeted movies are afraid to go.

That's not to say Happy Feet is all doom and gloom. This is a joyous, celebratory movie. In telling the story of a young penguin named Mumbles, the film celebrates penguin life and fills itself to the brim with breathtaking sequences showing off the world from a birds' eye view. But there's more.

Mumbles is still fresh out of the shell when his parents find out he has a problem. He can't sing. Singing is what defines an Emperor penguin. They call it their "heart song", and it's the unique sound each penguin makes to attract a mate or identify his or her self to partners and kids. To us it sounds like a lot of squawking, but to them it's perfectly performed, toe-tapping pop songs. Each penguin has his own style, and without a song Mumbles has no future.

Mumbles can't sing, but he can do something no other penguin can do: He can dance. When his waddling buddies let out the feelings in their heart through song, Mumbles gets happy feet. He can't control it. Just as music is the audible manifestation of who each penguin is, dancing is a physical expression of what's in Mumbles' soul. There's never been a bird like Mumbles, and the other penguins fear him. He's an outcast, and the first half of the movie follows the struggle of Mumbles and his parents as he tries to deal with that. It's not easy.

The second half takes Mumbles on a massive journey across Antarctica to prove his societal worth. Epic is really the only way to describe it. If the first half of the movie is Tatooine then the second half is Mumbles' Death Star run. Miller doesn't settle just for large-scale adventure though, the movie is packed with thematic depth and complexity beyond the ken of this relatively short review to describe. Happy Feet has layers, of the kind you're not going to find in most of the bargain bin kiddie movies probably already on top of your TV set.

Where some people are taking issue with it, is in the movie's final act. The film takes an almost manic environmentalist stance, with Mumble's dancing somehow changing the human world and saving his clan from starvation caused by over-fishing. It starts out well done, and that first moment where Mumbles steps out of the blinding snow and spots his first sign of human habitation is breathtaking. Miller does a stunning job of tying it all together while showing the world from a tiny penguin's viewpoint. He sets his camera to give you a real sense of scale. The human world looks so massive by comparison, for instance a shot out the window of an abandoned shack as Mumbles waddles past hits home how fragile the little guy is. Because of that the movie has impact; it delivers something bigger than the average talking animal flick.

But the messages do get to be a bit much. By its end the movie is a rush of Important Consequences, so much so that the smaller, much more critical (from a character standpoint) reunion and reunification of the relationship between Mumbles and his father Memphis is overshadowed. I love the way Miller turns such a simple throw-pillow of a plot into a vivid epic, but after doing that the movie should have wound down and gotten back in touch with the smaller moments that he used to build towards that large-scale journey the movie becomes.

I'm not sure how many people will actually notice the movie's preachy ending. By then you're so wrapped up in the characters, their quest, and the film's breathtaking visual flair that a wild but brief cacophony of exhortative information may go wholly unnoticed. Crazy zealotism and environmental irresponsibility bad; clear thinking and respect for Mother Nature good. Alright, whatever. Those aren't such bad lessons for kids to learn, I remember getting much the same ideas from Ranger Rick as a lad. If you're seeing anything more sinister than that in Happy Feet, it's because you're going looking for it. We complain a lot about how shallow kids' movies often are, but when something with heft comes along it's labeled as propaganda. This is an excellent animated movie, one with great performances and a vision so strong that it deserves to be mentioned right up there with the best of the now comfortably familiar computer animated medium. There's nothing comfortable about Happy Feet. It's brave and heartfelt, a surprising cinematic accomplishment.

Josh Tyler