In the summer of 2005, the surprise hit March of the Penguins briefly became an unexpected touchstone in the culture wars. Conservative commentators somewhat improbably embraced the Antarctic Emperors as mascots of monogamy and family values, claiming them along with The Passion of the Christ and public displays of the Ten Commandments against the likes of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.
Well, two can play at that game. No, it wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call the CGI cartoon Happy Feet an effort to claim penguins for the other side of the culture wars. But it wouldn’t be wholly wrong either.
Like its documentary predecessor, Happy Feet is a generally pleasant film, if not a brilliant one. Directed by George Miller (who produced the classic Babe and directed its misbegotten sequel Babe: Pig in the City), Happy Feet is a canny blend of remarkable animation, lots of action, adorable protagonists, and a jukebox soundtrack aimed at parents (an eclectic mix including R&B, Motown, hip-hop and above all tap). What’s not to like?
A fair bit, as it turns out. Take the strange blend of anti-religion/authority/tradition themes.
Emperor penguin society in Happy Feet is a curious mixture of saucy music and hidebound cultural and cultic conservatism. On the one hand, penguin culture revolves around singing, and since it’s all about attracting a mate, the lyrics can get a little racy. “You don’t have to be beautiful to turn me on / I just need your body, baby, from dusk till dawn,” Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) serenades her future mate Memphis (Hugh Jackman) in the opening number, a medley of Prince’s Kiss and Elvis’s Heartbreak Hotel. Later, some harmonizing penguins cover Boyz II Men: “I’ll make love to you / Like you want me to…”
On the other hand, the penguin elders, led by stern, Scottish-accented Noah (Hugo Weaving, who voiced a similarly grumpy, narrow-minded animal authority figure in Miller’s Babe films), are blinkered enforcers of orthodoxy cut from the same cloth as the authority figures in every rebellion movie from Footloose to Chocolat. The only difference is that the “sin” these elders object to is not sensuality — that’s okay — but a penguin who fails to find his unique “voice” in song turning to some other, unsanctioned form of expression — say, tap dancing.
“Praise the great one who put souls in our hearts and fish in our bellies,” intone the elders when things are good. When the fish turns scarce, though, they know who to blame: Norma Jean and Memphis’s young chick Mumbles (Elijah Wood), whose toe-tapping “pagan display” is an “abberation” that “offends” their deity, the “Great ’Guin.”
Virile Mephis is naturally mortified by his son’s embarrassing, unpenguinly moves. “I wouldn’t do that around folks, son,” he cautions the first time he notices Mumbles’ twitchy feet. Later, Mephis insists, “He’s not different! He’s a regular little penguin!”
“Don’t ask me to change, Pa,” Mumbles pleads. “I can’t.” Later comes the revelation that Memphis blames himself for an early parenting mistake that he considers the cause of his “messed-up” son’s problems.
Do lines like this suggest a coy subtext? How about the scene in which Mumbles tries to put off the eligible young Gloria from following him on a mission? “I’m a particular kind of guy,” he tries to explain. “It’s not you, it’s me. I’m not up for a serious relationship.” Granted, this is all subterfuge; the straight truth is the Mumbles is crazy about Gloria. Still, it seems reasonable to wonder just how deep the subterfuge goes.
Then there’s the quest for the “mystic beings” behind Antarctic avian spirituality. Early in the film young Mumbles runs into a gang of predatory south polar skuas, one of which wears a tracking tag. In language clearly borrowed from UFO culture, the seabird (Anthony LaPaglia) describes being “abducted” and “strapped down” by beings of incalculable intelligence and power. Later, Mumbles meets a wacky “guru” named Lovelace (Robin Williams) who has a plastic six-pack binder stuck on his neck, which he claims as a badge of honor, the talisman of the higher knowledge bestowed on him by the “mystic beings.” (Williams also voices a funky Latino Adélie penguin named Ramón, a role that plays to his strengths.)
The film continues to play up the UFO motif with lights in the sky and vague mechanical imagery, culminating in a climactic scene stolen directly from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with music and rhythm as the universal language of interspecies communication. In a “Star Trek”–like conceit, religion and faith are reduced to naturalistic, New-Agey terms; the “mystic beings” are really just “aliens,” a “higher power” of a quite finite and imperfect sort.
An account of the film’s antipathy toward religion wouldn’t be complete without the chilly, abandoned church that is Mumbles’ first glimpse of human civilization. Nor is there any suggestion that if the “orthodoxy” of Noah and the elders or the “mysticism” of Lovelace are founded on misunderstandings, some other sort of faith or some other authority might be more valid.
Some adults may be troubled by the depiction of humans as despoilers of nature; if a happy ending does suggest that humans can listen to their better natures and make responsible choices, such choices are by definition environmentalist ones.
I don’t want to overstate the prominence of Happy Feet’s problematic themes, which are generally subtle enough that even many adults may walk away from the film merely thinking it “cute” without noticing its subversive leanings. Some parents may be more uncomfortable with the suggestive lyrics mentioned above, which will generally mean nothing to kids, than with the problematic cultural bent.
It must also be acknowledged that in spite of its problematic themes, Happy Feet isn’t without charm. It is even touching at times, particularly in a pair of scenes in which music and heart become vehicles of rapprochement. The frequent action bits are well done, and Miller knocks off a few striking images, such as a spectacular clifftop dive past the camera into the water below.
Few if any children are likely to be in any way affected by the movie’s problematic elements on just a single viewing. Watching the DVD scores of times over their formative years is another matter. Children internalize the stories they grow up with. Happy Feet is not a story to raise your children on.
Little ones are “tougher than we think,” a penguin remarks in Happy Feet Two, and you can tell director George Miller believes it. The animated sequel pulls few punches: It’s overshadowed by more darkness, menace, heartache and anxiety than any talking-animal picture I can think of since, well, Miller’s last family-film sequel, the execrable Babe: Pig in the City. Neither the classic Babe nor the original Happy Feet contained any hint of the darkness of the sequels. Apparently Miller’s strategy is to soften kids up first, then drop the bomb.
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On the radio you mentioned the original Happy Feet movie having a “gay” subtext. While this isn’t a favorite movie of mine, I wanted to tell you that I did not see the scene regarding the son asking his father to not make him change as such. If you recall, while Mumble was in his egg, the egg got dropped and was cracked while it was supposed to be protected by his father. My interpretation is that Mumble is a handicapped child who could have easily been “aborted” due to his damage but was instead raised by his family. The mother did it with love, and the father struggled with his son’s differences but eventually came around to loving his handicapped child. Just thought I’d share a different interpretation with you. Thank you.
Copyright © 2000– Steven D. Greydanus. All rights reserved.