Australia’s own George Miller has made Happy Feet, a brilliant example of environmentalist propaganda aimed squarely at the minds and hearts of the next generation, seemingly in the hope that they will act (where their forebears have refused), to save the planet. As a movie it is charming and fun although a little trite and predictable in places, but as an educational tool on behalf of those who believe that humankind will be the death of all non-human Earth-bound life, it is breathtaking.
In an American box office seemingly obsessed with penguins, it is ironic that both March of the Penguins (US$77.5 million) and Happy Feet (US$41.5 million opening weekend) were made elsewhere (but used American voices to keep everyone happy) – Australian George Miller directing the locally produced latter. Animal Logic in Sydney (in association with Kennedy Miller) have produced an animated film that is astonishing in its realistic appearance and wonderful to watch. The landscape visuals are remarkable for their lifelike colour and the combination of real life and animated components works brilliantly. The penguins themselves are wonderfully realised.
With singing and dancing as promised in the trailer, kids will love the cute little creatures, and it is in this way that Miller clearly hopes to win their hearts. As the ‘aliens’ who are responsible for the decrease in available fish, we come off fairly badly in Happy Feet, although that is hardly surprising. It remains to be seen, however, whether the drawn-out story will have children’s minds wandering rather than absorbing. Their attention is sure to be captured, however, by the singing colony of Emperors and perhaps even moreso when the hero Mumble (Elijah Wood) stumbles across Robin Williams and his buddies as a bizarre group of Adelie penguin ‘Amigos’ – it is only when Williams appears that proceedings become laugh-out-loud hilarious.
Aside from the political aspects, the natural charm of the characters and the absolutely brilliant animation, the plot leaves much to be desired. Straightforward and unchallenging, this is yet another example of a children’s movie that asks too little of its audience. Summarised in four phrases: penguin doesn’t fit in, penguin finds others who accept him as he is, penguin becomes hero by staying true to himself, penguin is welcomed back among his own kind. It is basic and predictable, and perhaps the animation and concept were worthy of something more.
The final message in this political announcement is also somewhat unclear. In succeeding in drawing human attention to the plight of the penguins, Mumble saves the day. And yet, had he not been a dancing penguin, the film seems to suggest we would not have cared. This may have been Miller’s point all along – that it is only the extraordinary that will make people concerned about the environment – although this subtlety may be lost on a younger audience whom Miller seems to have been trying to convince that we have a responsibility to behave better for the sake of all (including the non-dancing, stock-standard) non-human life.
While Happy Feet is at times ground-breaking in its animation, and its characters and their hijinks will certainly entertain, it is not a perfect film. As a prod at the collective sense of environmental conscience, it is likely to win the hearts of many of its target audience of pre-teens. In spite of the rave reviews it has received, it’s just not Citizen Kane.Rating: