Director: George Miller
By Roderick Heath
It was evening when my friends and I seemed to be aging in reverse. We’re an eclectic group, ranging from 19 to 35 years old, united generally by a love of music and bohemian insouciance. In celebrating an old friend, a singer whom I shall call Jewel, returning briefly to town after a year away—she described her new life as same shit, different town, slightly warmer—we started off guzzling rum and red wine and passing a joint until Jewel was afflicted with rabid munchies whilst hiding under the table. Darth, guitarist and unofficial band manager, and I ended up discussing the nature of recycling in art, making nonqualitative observations of the connection between Picasso and the Transformers movie as both being generated by an alchemy of old ideas into new. With the important addendum that Michael Bay sucks. Hulk showed us downloaded satirical movie trailers, like “Shining,” a re-edit of footage from The Shining that makes it look like an uplifting tale of a cranky author befriending an adorable tyke.
“Shining” is a very clever piece of work, both proving how clichéd the modern style of movie trailer is, and Hitchcock’s theories on the nature of montage, that is, meaning in film is determined by the arrangement of images. All this time I’m pondering to myself if our fascination with the detritus of recent pop culture is truly a pathway to new creativity or wallowing in the ruins of the age. Hulk downloaded every TV theme tune from 1975 to 1990, and challenged us to identify them. By the time we got to a remix of the theme of Battle of the Planets and the Waltzing Matilda-derived jingle of Secret Valley (an Aussie show about a gang of intrepid nature scouts constantly contending with an evil developer, repeated ad nauseum of a Saturday morning once upon a time), we knew it was time to get out into the night. And lo, we did walkest the night, and didst meet many strange people, and did playeth pool in the club.
The dispiriting experience of a club full of people looking for something that isn’t happening eventually drove us back to the house of Hulk and his fiancée, whereupon we ended up watching Happy Feet, which, as we noted with some amusement, is an animated film by the guy who made Mad Max. Indeed, there’s some continuity of purpose in the film, with Miller’s love of epic tales of wandering loners, individualist heroes contending with a brutal world. Miller once told an amusing anecdote that when making Mad Max III: Beyond Thunderdome, he had to gain permission to shoot on tribal land; in recounting his movie’s story to the Aboriginal elders, they instantly dug it—their myths, too, are filled with wandering heroes in epic tales. Recycling indeed.
Happy Feet is, at heart, an epic tale in the same mould; like Max, Mumble (Elijah Wood) is a solitary being who becomes the saviour of his civilisation precisely by being dedicated to his individual vision. In this case, he is a dancer, in opposition to the organising principle of his race of Emperor Penguins, whose society is built around their individualised mating calls. His siren mother Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and father Memphis (Hugh Jackman) met when her song “Kiss” found a perfect counterpoint in his “Heartbreak Hotel.” This union of ’50s icons produces a new, but disturbing, cultural offspring. Mumble is joined almost from birth to a girl of strong vocal prowess, Gloria (Brittany Murphy), but his singing is so woeful, everyone cringes at the sound; his “happy feet,” as Memphis anxiously explains, “just ain’t penguin.”
So Mumble becomes a symbol for every kind of social outcast and reject. His father’s paranoia over raising him wrong—he dropped his egg for a short spell during the winter hibernation—and subsequent begging for him to give up his deviant ways, is a sly nudge towards identifying Mumble with the fate of many gay men. He gains loyal followers in the form of a quartet of Adelie penguins (basically are identified as Mexican) who dig his dancing and adopt it and him.Yes, I can’t help but think, that’s my friends and me in a nutshell.
Soon Mumble’s got all the young folk of the Emperor tribe shaking a leg, only to be loudly and roundly excommunicated by the pharisaic leaders of the tribe. The Scots-brogued Elder (Hugo Weaving) blames him for the displeasure of the sky gods that has resulted in the recent shortage of fish that endangers the whole population; for inspiring a loss of communal identity; for undercutting the entwined purpose of song in joining together the traditional male-female relationship and for celebrating their religion; and for bringing outside influences in. He swats aside one of the Adelies to make his point. It’s an effective and memorable scene that accurately conflates about the last 40 years’ worth of conservative political rhetoric into a solid stone of abuse aimed at Mumble. In fearlessly accepting his exile, Mumble vows to return with proof that the fish are, in fact, being taken away by the awesomely powerful “aliens” responsible for such strange, unexplained phenomena as tags rings around legs and the plastic six-pack holder that entangles heads. When Gloria tries to follow Mumble into exile, he rejects her so that she’ll return and lead a proper life.
Eventually Mumble and his amigos reach a deserted whaling station teeming with garbage, and see a trawler looting the sea. Mumble swims out to sea to follow it, and washes up on a city beach. He wakes up in a zoo, and tries desperately to get the attention of humans who idly enjoy watching the quaint animals making their incoherent noises. Mumble is slowly driven first to despair and finally to near-madness, hallucinating and retreating into a corner, staring at his own reflection in the glass, a ball of noncommunicative defeat. Yes, I thought, that’s where so many of us are now—my friends, myself.
Happy Feet, though international in its outlook, is very much a modern Australian film in sensibility. Like our country, it’s an awkward conflation of imported cultures and their tropes—in its everyday life, dedicated to the contemporary pop culture of America, but with a leadership caste oriented to Old World religious conservatism, tolerant and multicultural as long as there is no overt dissent, creative but uninterested in the fruits of its own efforts. In exactly the same way that the Elders of the Emperors maintain status quo by exiling alt-culture tyro Mumble, our current right-wing government has for more than decade maintained hegemony by gutting funding for artistic and cultural organisations that promote diversity of opinion and individuality of voice, and anyone it accuses of having a left-wing or anti-government bias. The conservatives have actively strangled the arts in Australia, leaving us with virtually no native television drama, a pathetic publishing industry, and a financially defeated film industry.
The ironies are built into Miller’s approach; he knows damn well he can only sell Happy Feet in a Yankee-inflected, animated fantasyland. The film is a musical loaded with ideas, except that it can’t actually compose music for itself, instead relying on the artful deployment of jukebox hits. The film references Moulin Rouge!, another Aussie-but-not, musical-but-not featuring Nicole Kidman, in its cornucopia of cultural detritus. Miller is a far better filmmaker than Baz Luhrmann, however; his directorial control is far more evident, and his ideas don’t get the better of his sense of shape and story and are more coherent and thought through.
Miller’s ace up the sleeve, however, is communication. Just as it brought two tribes of penguins together, Mumbles’ dancing now accidentally gets the attention of a little girl. Soon he finds himself a figure of incredulous adoration, and scientists release him back into the wild. His return causes a battle between two camps in the penguin tribe: those who dance to Mumble’s insistence that it will convince humans to help them and the Elders and their acolytes who sing to the heavens. Guess who is proved right. We glimpse the human world furiously debating banning fishing in Antarctic waters, resulting in the rejuvenated penguin world singing and dancing in joy. Finally, Mumble’s new way of expression has defeated barriers and resulted in new thinking and perception that saves the world. It’s an absurdly idealistic, Capraesque finale in a film that skirts dystopian vision, but at least it, like the rest of the film’s story progression, has a logic to it.
The film is far from perfect. Much of its central third repeats scenes, and the finale is rushed. The individualist-artist theme is far stronger than the environmentalist thrust, though considering modern green-left politics, these things are increasingly bound together. The Mumble-Gloria subplot is terribly weak; the finale has them singing and dancing together, despite the fact that she’s gotten married and had a litter of kids in his absence. Huh? The computer animation alternates between some astonishing beauty and imagination, and flat, plastic-textured effects, especially during the tedious proliferation of slide-on-the-ice-on- your-ass scenes. But Happy Feet knows what it wants to say, and says it well. As for my friends—us Mumbles on our Dunciad—it finished with us staring in the glass or clutching each other for comfort. But we keep on dancing, hoping someone notices the zoo is killing us.