Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Unhappy Audience

Film: Happy Feet
Format: DVD from DeKalb Public Library on laptop.

The shit I do for this website. I grabbed Happy Feet off the shelf at the library today specifically because this was a film that I was dreading. I’ve seen it before and I didn’t like it the first time through. All I remember was a lot of breathy singing and a lot of dancing penguins. Now that I’ve watched it again, the reality is a lot of breathy singing and dancing penguins. This is exactly the worst type of film made for children or a “family” audience. There’s a lot of pandering to kids here, a slap-in-the-face level couple of messages, and nothing deeper than the barest, most obvious, surface-level story. Adults entertained by this sort of thing are the same sort of people who go to amusement parks to see the shows instead of go on the rides. It overdoses on the cute rather than actually trying to do something interesting. Like I said, the shit I do for this website.

In the world of emperor penguins, the goal is always to find something called a “heartsong.” When they are of the right age, the penguins wander around singing at each other until they find someone else singing the same song, or something, and they mate for life. This, such as it is, happens to Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and Memphis (Hugh Jackman). They produce an egg, which results in Mumble (Elijah Wood). In what will certainly become the entire main point of the movie, it is soon discovered that Mumble is unable to sing but has a natural penchant for tap dancing.

What follows is a great deal of singing of various pop tunes. Mumble is enamored of Gloria (Brittany Murphy). Since Mumbles can’t sing, though, he is an outcast in society, with only Gloria nice to him. On the night the emperor penguins graduate from singing school, Mumble gets separated from everyone else and ends up with a group of Adelie penguins who take him to an oracle named Lovelace (Robin Williams). Lovelace claims his mystical powers come from the six pack rings stuck around his neck.

Eventually, Mumble gets Gloria to fall for him through the magic of dance, but since he’s not singing, he is again shunned by everyone else. Worse, he gets banished because the penguin elders (led by Hugo Weaving) blame his un-penguin-like behavior for the dearth of fish. So off Mumble goes with his Adelie friends, and when Gloria tries to follow him, he shoos her away.

Eventually, Mumble swims to Australia(!) and is tossed into a zoo where he tap dances in an attempt to communicate with the humans. Eventually, he’s successful. And, instead of deciding to capitalize like a bunch of pimps on their dancing penguin sensation, the zoo releases Mumble back to the wild where…ah, but that’s spoiler territory. Suffice it to say that the sight of a dancing penguin makes massive human corporations and entire countries completely halt their aggressive fishing operations.

Look, Happy Feet is little more than Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer with an environmental message tacked on. Mumble is specifically made to be an outsider in emperor penguin society. In addition to his inability to sing, he also is the only penguin who doesn’t mature, so he spends a good chunk of the film still looking like a juvenile. That he’s also conveniently given a patch of bow tie-shaped feathers under his chin and a pattern that looks even more like a tuxedo than a normal penguin is not a mistake either. He’s also got blue eyes, because why the fuck not?

The damnedest thing is that this comes from George Miller, who got famous for producing the Mad Max movies. He went from post-apocalyptic industrial desert wastelands to…penguins that sing and dance. That’s like getting a cheerful bedtime story from Hannibal Lecter.

There’s a lot here to dislike, at least for me. First, the songs, while well performed, are completely uninspired. There’s nothing new here, and the whole “singing the same song to fall in love” think grates on me. I’m half surprised they didn’t try to work in “Milkshake” at some point. There are also significant plot issues. I mean, I’m not expecting realism in a movie about a tap dancing penguin, but there’s a significant problem with the way the film works. Everyone blames Mumble for everything because he dances, and yet when the other penguins get their groove on and sing to each other, guess what they do. They dance, and no one gives a shit.

This doesn’t even cover the significant plot hole of the entire human world deciding to essentially forgo capitalism because of a dancing penguin. That’s right—get a penguin to do a little boogie and no one want to monetize it or find some way to use that to further destroy the planet. I get that this is a kids’ movie, but even on that level, this is almost offensively dumb.

I also don’t understand the voice work in several places. Robin Williams voices one of the Adelie penguins, but for some reason, all of the Adelie penguins are Mexican. This means that we get a lot of Williams sporting a stereotypical Mexican-American accent. Seriously? Cheech Marin wasn’t available? And why get Hugh Jackman if you’re going to make him do a bad Elvis impersonation? Or pay Nicole Kidman to do a breathy impersonation of Marilyn Monroe?

I’ll be blunt. I don’t like the characters, I don’t like the story, and I don’t like the music. I can’t imagine that Happy Feet will entertain anyone much over 8 years old or anyone who enjoys a little thought put into the movie he or she is watching.

Why to watch Happy Feet: Little kids’ll like it.
Why not to watch: It’s pandering sap.


  1. I didn't dislike this one as much as you, apparently. I didn't love it or anything, but the one time I saw it, I didn't hate it. Also, isn't George Miller the director of the Mad Max movies? Not just the producer (or were you using "producer" differently)?

    1. Yeah, I was using "produced" more as "created," in that he wrote, directed, and produced them.

      Maybe I was just in a bad mood last night, but I didn't like it much the first time, either.

  2. "I can’t imagine that Happy Feet will entertain anyone much over 8 years old or anyone who enjoys a little thought put into the movie he or she is watching."

    Uh, no.

    I enjoyed this movie. I liked the singing. I also liked the whole parable of the dangers of religion.

    And I like Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, too.

    1. Well, I figured I'd be in the minority on this.

      I don't see this as a parable on the dangers of religion. I think it's more a parable on the dangers of fundamentalism. Essentially, the penguins substitute one religious belief for another one.

      I like Rudolph, too.

  3. Just think happy thoughts of Immortan Joe, Imperator Furiosa, and good ol' Max....

    1. Well, on the positive side, I don't ever have to watch this again, so there's that. It's not the worst animated film to be nominated for an Oscar (Brother Bear wins that dubious award), but it might be the worst winner.

  4. This review showcases an unprecedented level of disdain I've never seen from you before -- and yes, I have read your review of "Vinyl." It's like Christmas in July!

    I think I saw this movie in the best setting possible: On vacation with the fam, looking to escape the heat and settle down my then very young, overtired kids with some PPV. I don't remember the actual film very well, but I do remember that everything in the room was cool and quiet (other than the yammering of the TV) and still.


    1. Should I alert you when I go on a piss rant? I've always maintained that bad reviews are more fun to write and read than good ones. You might want to check out the review of Becky Sharp last month--I ripped on that one, too.

      I watched this the first time on a family vacation, too. My memory of it may have been more positive of it because of that, but the reality this time was far, far worse.

  5. I took my brother and college aged niece. To this as a holiday treat for our family. He may not have been in a movie theater since Star Wars in 1977, he is not a movie guy. I doubt after the experience, I will ever get him into a theater again. We all hated it and the sucker punch environmental message was so sanctimonious, I wanted to throw more plastic six pack rings in the ocean.

    1. The only reason I watched this was because I had to for this list. Otherwise, even a vaguely pleasant memory of watching this the first time with my kids didn't have enough to warrant a second viewing.

      The version I checked out from the library had the sequel as well. I didn't bother.