What is it about environment-conscious movies that immediately receives the wrath of (unabashedly biased or handsomely paid) critics? Whether it’s a politically-charged documentary from Al Gore (An Inconvenient Truth), a sci-fi whaf-if blockbuster from Wolfgang Peterson (The Day After Tomorrow), or an earnest kid-friendly film about cute penguins – any time the dire state of environment is mentioned — it immediately gets discarded as lies, filthy lies and bogus opinions? First of all, there’s so much more in these films besides an ecology message. But just the dismissal itself is unbelievably frustrating – exactly what kind of money is being thrown on so-called critics to make anything environment-oriented go away? And why do we keep believing these “reviews”? I didn’t see Happy Feet precisely because of that negative publicity. I heard one too many angry outbursts about the movie’s eco-friendly message, and skipped it over the holidays. As you might expect, the movie is so much more than that, and it’s a shame people are being scared away from theaters because a movie might contain an unpopular (in what circles) theme. A real shame.
Happy Feet is a musical – it starts with the Beatles’ timeless “once there was a way … to get back homeward”. Right there, at that moment I fell in love with the film. Anyone who can identify with the innocent escapism of Lennon/McCartney lyrics and be transformed into a world of talking penguins – has got my vote. And the film only got better from that – the opening sequence reminded me of Moulin Rouge – an amazing orchestration of 8-10 familiar tunes, sung by different characters (in this case – all penguins) to tell one story. Hardly changing any lyrics, famous melodies were strung together to establish a plot. It’s a world where every penguin is born with a heart-song, and there’s only one mate that will respond, and “click” to that heart-song, forming a happy, caring family in the process. If you’re a kid (or even a grown-up), you’re hooked from the start – it’s a simlpe, but compelling story. It connects to your inner unique personality, and ties in to your family and friends issues. You already know that somewhere among the icebergs there will be a penguin who doesn’t have his/her unique song, cannot find a mate, and subsequently, happiness. Can you really dismiss such a fairy tale as “another left-wing liberal attack on big oil”? How? Unfortunately, the negative publicity has worked – I know of a few couples who have completely ignored that movie, and didn’t take their kids to see it. Their loss.
The film’s magic goes beyond the song selection. There’s wonderful voice-work: Hugh Jackman, Robin Williams (yes, he voices a few characters, but it’s not over the top), Rip Torn, Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman. You get the usual “animal looks like the actor who provides the voice”, but it goes beyond recognizable features – Robin Williams, animated; Hugh Jackman, animated. These are well-done, detailed models with so much of the actor’s resume in them, but done in a very subtle way. You are still watching a character (not an actor), but it’s a very familiar character, as if you recently spent a few days with him in Middle Earth, Vietnam radio studio, or in Xavier’s school for gifted youngsters.
As the main character, Mumble goes on a quest to find his heart-long, and his new friends (you see, he’s an outsider in his first family), he meets strange new animals, and keeps hearing about “aliens” (people) who in one way or another affect penguins, icebergs, the fish and essentially, their whole environment. The message is beginning to creep in, but it’s done with a focused purpose, from a point of view of animals, and simplified for kids to understand. There’s no finger-pointing, and no mention of Halliburton, but you get the idea. And you have to be a complete idiot if you don’t agree with it – don’t pollute, don’t overfish, don’t disturb wildlife. How did something like that get “sold” to general public as an over-the-top tree-hugging agenda – I don’t know. Do you remember Ferngully cartoon series? It’s gotta be over 10 years old by now. Same concept, only set in a disappearing forest. Not only it’s a responsible, thoughtful entertainment, it’s also a good sign from the studios – to recognize and produce a movie like that, and stand by its message.
If you don’t have kids, and insist on burying your head deeper in the sand about the environment, you can skip that movie altogether. I will remind you that the sand is getting hotter all the time. But if you want to enjoy a musical with your children, and also take away some positive, friendly message about our little brothers – Happy Feet is perfect entertainment. Not as empty as many other recent cartoons, but also not too heavy on content. Well, maybe Robin Williams is indeed a little over the top – but I always found that to be a good thing – entertainment must involve some abandonment.
Enjoy this flick, and if you’re interested in more environmental movies, just go out and buy An Inconvenient Truth, and show it to everyone you can fit in front of your television. A full review will follow.