Saturday, January 14, 2012

Day 45: Happy Feet

"Don't ask me to change pa, 'cause I can't."

When you're a parent you end up going through phases with your child where you watch the same movie virtually every day for a week or so until it's on to the next one. My youngest daughter Elanora has been in a phase where all she wants to watch it Happy Feet. Every penguin she sees on a shirt, in a store, on tv, she calls happy feet. She's obsessed with it. It's consumed her. I'll admit that I saw the film back when my oldest daughter Clementine was younger, but I didn't remember much about it other than the two qualities that most people are hung up on regarding the film: the incessant repurposing of popular music and Robin Williams' horrendously stereotypical dual voice roles.

Those are two things that nobody can change about the film, and they are its biggest detriment, but I thought to myself, well, you forgave Baz Luhrmann for doing that to popular songs in Moulin Rouge, why do you hold a grudge against these filmmakers? And as for Robin Williams, it's better just to accept that he's there and move on, because there is an absolute, one hundred percent, bona fide masterwork lying just beneath the surface of this cute movie about singing and dancing penguins.

Yes, you read that right, Happy Feet is undeniably the best animated film not made by Pixar or Hayao Miyazaki in the last decade. It is an incredible film that as a parent, I would have no qualms whatsoever with my children watching over and over again because it conveys at least two messages to its audience that I think are invaluable and worthy of my child's time. First, be yourself, be who you are in spite of what anyone else tells you. There are others out there who will accept you for who you are, and those who don't aren't worth your time.

Secondly, and most importantly, question and challenge any authority figures who force you to see things their way. Just because there are institutions and rules that have been followed by generations, it doesn't necessarily make them right or valid, and you need to search for your own truth in this world.

The film focuses on two emperor penguins named Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) who mate for life through their heart songs, a tradition that these particular penguins have had throughout the centuries. They have a baby together named Mumble (Elijah Wood) who discovers that his heart song is not a song, but it is in fact a tap dance. Every penguin elder scoffs at Mumble, appalled by what they view as his malfunction in their society. As Mumble grows, he continues to be different from everyone else, and the animators even animate him differently, presumably so he'll stand out from the pack and be easier for children to identify as the protagonist. The emperor penguins are suffering a shortage of fish and are in danger of dying off if something isn't done soon.

Mumble wanders off one day after being derided by his classmates, and stumble upon several Adelie penguins (of which Robin Williams' Ramon is a member). They're immediately impressed by his dance moves and accept Mumble as one of his own, something he's never found among the emperors. Returning to his home with his new friends, Mumble is banished by the penguin elders when they tell him to renounce his ways and stop dancing.

The scene is amazing. The dialogue is incredibly well written with Mumble's father siding with Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving) and his mother siding with him. Mumble begs his father not to ask him to change who he is while the elders tell him to repent and ask the Great 'Guin in the sky for forgiveness. It's powerful stuff for a kids movie. Its parallels to religion's intolerance of homosexuality are undeniable, and will hopefully be an inspiration to any children watching who may be feeling like they're not welcome in church or society in general. Like I said, it's heavy, heavy stuff.

Since he was younger and had an encounter with a bird who claims to have been abducted by aliens, Mumble has been obsessed with the notion that there's more in the world than just penguins. He and his new friends go to Lovelace (Williams again, sigh), a rockhopper penguin who claims to have been abducted himself, for advice. The crew sets out in search of the aliens, traveling a long distance to find the place where Lovelace claimed to have been abducted. They come across all manner of beasts on their quest, from elephant seals to killer whales, when they finally come across a huge fishing boat.
Mumble, bound and determined to get some answers, takes off after the ship and finds himself put in a zoo.

Here he dances for the zoo visitors and becomes something of a sensation. This section of the film caused a mild bit of controversy initially because of its use of actual humans rather than animation, but it doesn't bother me as much as it did some people. The humans end up fixing Mumble with a tracking device and bringing him back to his herd. Mumble's return causes a revolution among the penguins, with the bulk of the younger penguins joining him in dance while the elders yell and scream at them to stop their hedonism.

The dancing penguins force the humans tracking Mumble to reconsider their overfishing in that region of the world, and change is seen being enacted by humans. It's a bit of a stretch, and it's certainly a bit of environmental wish fulfillment, but there's nothing wrong with the film having a bit of a fantasy element to it. It ends in a wholly satisfactory manner, with Mumble's father finally accepting him and joining his son in his revolt, and the youth of the penguin tribe disobeying their elders with reckless abandon.

I found this film, and continue to find it, nothing short of marvelous. The film downright empowers outsiders, and I wish that more children's entertainment were this brash in defying the conventions of children's animation. I know that the true message of the film will be mostly lost on the young, but don't doubt how savvy children can be. They'll see the film and view it as more than just the cute, dancing penguin movie. They'll get the message even if they don't fully grasp the nuances of it.

Yes, Robin Williams' schtick is tiresome, but the film has much more going for it than just Williams. The voice acting is uniformly good. Elijah Wood has one of those voices that's just filled with naivete and it's put to wonderful effect here. Brittany Murphy, who voices Mumble's love interest Gloria, has a wonderful singing voice and makes her untimely death that much sadder. Kidman and Jackman are also fantastic, and Weaving continues to be one of the most reliable villains working today. He sounds just like the pompous son of a bitch he's supposed to sound like, and has so much nuance as an actor, his appearance in a film should never be taken for granted.

Director George Miller cut his teeth on low budget action films like the Mad Max series, but his mid-90s career reinvention that started with the Babe films has revealed a kinder, gentler soul who will never stop challenging his audience, no matter how young it skews. I have yet to see this film's sequel, but it just opened at the $1.75 theater here, so I'm sure we'll make a pilgrimage soon enough. It certainly wasn't met with the success that this one found, but this film's success gives me hope that parents will continue taking their children to see films that can change their perception of the world and those around them.

If you have children, you're doing them a disservice by not showing them this film. It's nothing short of a masterpiece and I hope that my children will grow to share it with their children. There's something for everyone to learn here, and its lessons are as timeless as when a dude named Jesus taught people to challenge the righteous. That message won't be lost on anyone.

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