Friday, November 17, 2006

Happy Feet (Miller, 2006)

If you’re thinking Happy Feet is going to be just another average animated film trading on a combo of cute animals, hip pop culture references and hammy celebrity voiceovers, boy are you in for a surprise. Happy Feet is nothing short of an epic. The title comes from the particular quirk of Mumble, the penguin protagonist whom we gleefully follow from egg to misfit to hero as he struggles to gain acceptance in community that does not recognize, let alone appreciate his talents. In a world of birds that find love and companionship by finding and unleashing their ‘heart songs’, Mumble is tone-def. But man, can that boy boogie. By this point, you may be thinking that you have seen this film several times before – an awkward young character struggling to be accepted by the mainstream for their individuality. However, Happy Feet’s greatness comes not only in the roundabout way that it treads upon this familiar path, but also in the way that it travels far beyond the expected destination. Most films such as this are content with self-discovery. Happy Feet encourages viewers to apply their gifts towards a greater good.

There comes a moment early on in Happy Feet where it becomes clear that the viewer will have to either submit to George Miller’s stylistic tone or resist it. It is simply too aggressive to watch without investment. An early medley of recognizable popular music temporarily calls to mind the disastrous bombast of Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge; however, there is a key difference. Unlike Luhrmann, Miller does not beg and plead like a puppy for our appreciation. Rather, he confidently asserts his alternate penguin universe with resonant song selection and character interaction that is three-dimensional. He does not overuse his gimmick. Instead, he continually finds new ways to engage us in his hero’s journey: song, dance, drama, humor, suspense and passion. Even when one of his supporting characters is the frequently unbearable Robin Williams, Miller is able to use him in just the right doses, reminding us why he shot to superstardom and not allowing him to grow tiresome. Even Williams’ Latino accent, which was distressing in the film’s trailer, makes sense here because of the context. Mumble has traveled to a different community and the change is used to underscore the transition.

Along his journey, Mumble also has encounters with creatures more threatening that would just assume make him a meal. Invariably, these encounters are genuinely thrilling with extraordinary animation rendering the various species of marine life. There are several sequences in Happy Feet that simply gorgeous, particularly a nighttime song set against the backdrop of the aurora australis. Purely on a technical level, Happy Feet sets a new standard in computer animation. However, it is the substance that Miller ultimately delivers in the form of a thoroughly convincing moral plea that is sure to make the film a work that will endure for years to come. Without stridency, Miller makes an environmental statement that is simple enough for a child to understand and yet carries with it the power to stir and shame an adult. Even if you can see the ending coming, it is a marvel to witness. Yes, Happy Feet is a ‘feel good’ film; but, it is a film that provides that good feeling by showing us our better nature, rather than indulging in embarrassing sappiness and pop psychology. Dreamworks and Pixar, take note. The bar has been raised. Happy Feet is one of the year’s best films.



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