While I was speaking with a high school class recently, one student observed that children’s films have become void of thematic depth. The value of friends and family remains the standard lesson, but these Daddy Day Care days mainly deliver brightly coloured distractions meant to relieve two hours of parental duty.
Within the first minute of Happy Feet, I felt a rain cloud. As soon as the opening narration ended, I was treated to an animated penguin (voiced by Nicole Kidman) singing Prince’s “Kiss.” Are we really in need of a self-aware, Antarctic-transplanted Moulin Rouge, I asked myself. Then, the penguins’ song-based world order started coming into focus. The visuals match their technology in imagination. And the director George Miller assures that he won’t play lightly on peril, humour, trauma and empathy. No kids’ movie has been so persistent about its role as a developmental experience since Miller’s 1998 masterpiece Babe: Pig in the City.
Happy Feet is foremost a happy movie, but it has weight because it fights for that perspective. When the penguin Mumble (voiced in his younger years by Elizabeth Daily and then by Elijah Wood) is hatched, his constant toetapping is an oddity among the community. It’s tradition that penguins find their mates after finding their heartsongs. Too bad Mumble has a singing voice like Bobcat Goldthwait.
The personal quirks that can make conventional social rituals a struggle is the basis for Happy Feet’s first act. Miller doesn’t sugarcoat his view of the world as a place that’s hostile towards difference. But upholding integrity and goodness is key to Mumble’s journey for acceptance. Aided by a group of tiny Latin penguins, he’s also determined to find the rumoured “aliens” he suspects are starving the colonies by stealing their fish supply. The recurrent concept developed in Miller’s films is of the socially disregarded banding together to govern themselves. This necessity of perseverance traces from Max’s settlement plea in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, “I say we’re gonna stay here. And we’re gonna live a long time. And we’re gonna be thankful.”
In Babe: Pig in the City, an abandoned puppy announces his survived plight, “My human tied me in a bag and throwed me in the water.” Mumble’s appeal to a predatory bird to spare his life is met by the cruel response that mercy just isn’t in its nature. Tapdancing is Mumble’s security blanket; the one thing that keeps him happy and moving forward.
Visually, one challenge a movie like this faces is that due to its environment and characters, its only obvious colours choices are blue, white, black and yellow for beaks. Even in barren landscapes, the nearly tactile crispness of Happy Feet’s imagery is consistently breathtaking. There’s a font of intelligent visual ideas. A musical number is set under the night sky, with the aurora lights illuminating a glacier like a dance floor. Creative inserts of live action elements are also placed within several animated scenes. Happy Feet doesn’t settle for the pacification of animated talking-animal flicks. By not being afraid of delivering an experience, its impact and enjoyability is unmeasured among current kid films. This is the movie that families deserve.
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