Thursday, May 24, 2007

Happy, meandering Feet

Whenever I take my sons to see animated movies, I dig in for the long haul. I smuggle in my favorite dark chocolates, wear my most comfortable jeans and put on my roomiest shoes. It’s best to be extremely comfortable physically when faced with mental torture. Of course watching my sons’ eyes light up is worth it all. But it was with the same siege mentality that I settled in to watch Warner Brothers’ Happy Feet.

The movie has a standard kiddies’ set up for sure. A penguin, probably because he was dropped as an egg (no, seriously), grows up to be different from the rest. The penguins in George Miller’s movie, you see, can all sing. They sing rather dramatic gospel opera versions of boogie disco numbers. The community is brought together by this innate talent they all have. But our hero Mumble (Elijah Wood), a different looking sort, can’t sing to save his life. Instead he tap-dances, much to the befuddlement of everyone around him.

Soon Mumble finds himself isolated from his community and ends up making friends with a bunch of ragtag penguins. To his surprise, these penguins don’t seem bothered by his inability to sing. Sure they make fun of it, but they also don’t dismiss him because of it. In fact, they find things to appreciate about him – most notably his terrific tap dancing talent. And all the penguins speak in a Mexican accent.

When this struck me between stolen naps, I was as alert as a beacon on a lighthouse. Maybe this movie wasn’t for kids at all. Because clearly here was a message for parents about boys who didn’t fit the mould - how society looked at them, how their own parents lost their perspective about their sons when pressured by the same society and how a gaggle (dare I say gang) from a marginalized culture understood him and were willing to call him their own.

The narrative in Happy Feet is unlike anything I’ve seen in animated films before. It’s not neatly packaged and miraculous like most such movies tend to have. The world of animals in this movie collides rather seriously with the world of humans. And it’s a collision of a planetary scale. And meandering though the script might be, the movie covers a lot of ground.

It explores, in a surprisingly honest way, the relationship between a father and a child who sticks out like a sore thumb. It shows the father’s struggle with his own inability to groom his son. (Mumble’s father is played by Hugh Jackman essaying a killer delta blues accent.) Happy Feet makes larger statements about growing up, love, friendship, fear and courage. Hey, it even throws in a sharp critique of the school system that made me sigh and shake my head.

Most importantly, when Mumble decides to take on an environmental issue that is depleting the fish stocks for penguins, he doesn’t find easy answers. His struggles are heroic but ultimately fruitless. In a magnificently depicted and disorienting sequence he finds himself placed in a zoo. He then loses his mind, becoming a whacko who tries to feed zoo fish to dissolving mirages of his parents – something only a director with a heart of steel could insert in a major kiddie movie such as this.

I was a little disappointed at the lucky break Mumble catches which allows the movie to creep back into the more comfortable territory of closure and happy endings. Eventually Happy Feet devolves into an environmental movie with a happy message – but not before its angst grabs your attention as an adult.

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