Monday, 20 November 2006

Happy Feet (2006)

Busby Berkeley on ice!

I tend to avoid talking animal cartoons, because they’re mostly pitched towards the very young audience. These movies tend to be altogether too cute, with the scripts concentrating so much on fart jokes, body humour, predictable plot twists and obligatory preaching about the value of friendship, loyalty, being true to yourself , etc. It’s a sure way to ensure that I’d never step into the cinema hall voluntarily, and then, only when accompanied by a child below the age of 8. Thankfully, Happy Feet is none of all that: it’s a very clever movie that had me and my friend entertained without feeling that the director was talking down to us like children, even though to a certain extent, this is still a cartoon for kids.

The animation has a kid-friendly story at its base – the story of Mumble, a penguin who cannot hold a tune, living in a penguin colony that believes the most important thing in the world is to sing – an activity so important that the mating ritual consists of finding a soulmate whose song touches a penguin heart. Unable to sing, Mumble has a talent for tap dancing, which manifests itself each time he gets inspired or happy. Since normal penguins sing when they’re inspired, this sort of behaviour freaks everyone out and makes him an outsider. Until he runs into another penguin colony with an even more peculiar belief system – one that might actually accept him. The premise of Happy Feet, that of an outsider trying to fit in and belong, is simple enough to reach out to the kiddies in the audience, yet deep enough for a parent to have a stimulating talk with the child later on about the movie.

What is there for the older audience, then? On top of the simple children’s story is an entire layer of savvy scriptwriting, visual humour, and sly situational comedy and dialogue. There is much adult humour and pop references that won’t fail to escape the attention of people who were born between 1975 and 1980, or even fans of old movies. For starters, the penguins sing snippets of songs throughout the movie, just like Moulin Rouge. The songs are funny enough and have a great hook, but only the adult will notice and fully appreciate the song selection, which includes Salt-N- Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex”, Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You”, and other classics from Prince, Elvis, Earth Wind and Fire, and other great acts from the late 80s and early 90s.

Then, add in many visual jokes either border on naughty puns (watch out for the scene where Mumble keeps falling on Gloria, the object of his desire!) or take off from Busby Berkeley’s musical choreography married with 1970s-style abstract animated credit sequences. And if that’s not enough, you’ll be thrown off balance with unexpected homages to Nankyoku Monogatari (the original Eight Below), 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Clearly, the writing team is talented: the jokes for the adults and kids run parallel to each other, often occurring at the same time. The writers also have a keen sense of balance, preventing jokes and the music from disrupting the flow of the story, and also preventing any intense or depressing moment from dragging on for too long.

That said, the movie does change gears twice: once at the half-way mark, and then again at the end of the third act – and the chances of a perfect, coherent, and unified script are somewhat lessened. You – or more likely, the child you brought along to see the cartoon - may point out that Happy Feet is a mash of at least 3 different movies with 3 different dynamics: there’s the story about the social misfit trying to find a way to compromise with society or have society recognise and accept his difference; there’s the situation comedy about the completely arbitrary differences in traditions and customs across societies; and there’s the overly preachy and naïve environmentalist spiel at the end (strangely not starring Al Gore) that jumps into the movie out of nowhere.

It’s a waste that an otherwise well-written and produced animation film like Happy Feet does not resolve the major problem it introduces in its plot, uses a bait-and-switch technique at the end, and throws in story points that perhaps would work better in feature-length movie of their own. Fortunately, the sheer creativity and humour that went into the making of Happy Feet still make it the best animation picture of 2006.

I have no objections to this film, it’s a sign that George Miller, director of the Mad Max movies, has gone soft in his Babe movie, and morphed into a classic liberal whose chief mission is to bring about the decline and fall of civilisation. If you’re a conservative parent, do consider these points:

1. The movie has Robin Williams playing a blatant stand-in for a televangelist con-man figure. Your kid will lose the ability to unquestioningly respect religious authorities.

2. In having little penguins learn all the basics about singing and the ‘heartsong’ that will lead them to their mates, this movie endorses sex education for kids.

3. This movie endorses moral relativism. It will be impossible for you to teach any rules or discipline your child in the future, since he’ll tell you flippantly that "in certain other cultures, this will be perfectly acceptable."

4. You may laugh at me now, but when your son grows up to be un-penguinny, indulging in alternative lifestyles and hedonistic practices, corrupting the youth of the community, and refusing to attend the counselling camp run by your religious authorities, don’t come crying at me. I have looked into the dark, liberal heart of George Miller, and I have told you so.

First published at incinemas on 23 November 2006

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