Written by: Warren Coleman, John Collee, George Miller, Judy Morris
Starring: Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman
Traditions set the standard for what gets deemed acceptable within different cultures and the longer these are set, the more difficult it becomes to veer away from. It occurs with humans, but in Happy Feet, we take a look at how this works with penguins. Using the classic case of the ugly duckling, this features create some wonderful allegories while also being very dumb as it reaches its third act.
Dropped while still in the egg, Mumble (Elijah Wood) cannot sing well, which typically attracts the male and female penguins together to mate. Instead, he’s born with the ability to move his feet in rapid succession creating a beat, which becomes a controversial act in the eyes of the elders. Marching to the beat of his own drum, Mumble hopes to open the minds of the other penguins about dancing.
As a concept, Happy Feet sounds a bit ridiculous especially when you have penguins singing popular songs but suddenly a penguin who prefers to dance causes a major uproar. It feels a bit off that penguins would be so selective about these things. All of that comes in jest because the act of singing and dancing comes tied to reproduction, which opens up one of the messages of the feature. It becomes about acceptance of others and the way they were born, even if it does not align with the values of the traditional community. It’s also said some penguins couple up within the same gender if you know what I mean. This story essentially becomes about the acceptance of those in the LGBTQ+ community and a specific conversation held within the film makes it a complete and direct correlation to make it undoubtedly clear.
Making this allegory with penguins makes it easily digestible for others, as who can possibly hate cute penguins? The animation certainly plays a part here in making all of these characters even more lovable. The fur on Mumble’s body looks textured and feels like it protects these animals from the frigid cold. In addition to the look, the filmmaking also sets the scale of this world to the size of these penguins. As the audience, we sit at their level and see the dangers they face on a daily basis from the predators around them. These sequences, helped out by the score, accentuate the fear it causes for these penguins, especially when they swim too deep underwater. It demonstrates penguins sit near the bottom of the food chain and while they like to sing, they should probably chill out with the number of animals that would love to eat them for nourishment.
Where the film loses itself comes from the climax towards the end as Mumble goes out on a journey to prove a point to the elder penguins in his community. The resolution to it all comes together in a ridiculous way, which takes away from the sense of reality the first two-thirds of the film set to establish. Yes, I understand writing that statement when it comes to a story about singing and dancing penguins, but outside of these elements, the film deals with real problems facing these animals. The resolution then makes part of the story a complete joke as harsh as it may be to say. It comes from a sequence of events that would not work through any lens of either reality or coherent storytelling.
As a directorial feat, George Miller nails the visual aesthetic of this film in relation to the actions of these penguins in their efforts to survive. The more child-friendly fare demonstrates the man has the range to do it all when you see him put out films such as this one and then turn around and craft something as bombastic as Mad Max: Fury Road. Vastly different in tone but both resolutely having a message regarding climate change and the impact it has on the present and the future shows the man has multitudes in the story he tells. Just different ways in presenting, which is just making me think of Mumble driving one of the vehicles in that hot desert.
Even with its massive shortcomings towards the end, Happy Feet has so much quality overall to enjoy. All of its themes and messaging hit well even if they are done a disservice in the conclusion of the story. Still, it tells a timeless tale of an individual being othered and then teaching everyone else a lesson about it being okay to move past traditions if it causes harm to those within the community. Something humans can take a page out of. Also, we get to see a cute penguin dance for nearly two hours, what else could you want?