There is a dark little section in the back of my cupboard where a pile of DVDs lurk, full of misguided gifts and “what-was-I-thinking?”’s from Spy Hard to Scooby Doo: The Movie. Ron Howard’s abysmal Grand Theft Auto once took pride of place here, but it was so bad that I had it destroyed. The film I dug out is one that I feel ashamed to enjoy, not only as a cineaste but also simply as an adult. Happy Feet is by no means a terrible film – it won the 2007 Best Animated Feature Oscar, if only to spite Pixar’s fatally flawed Cars - but it is whimsical, sentimental and strictly for kids. Despite this, that dancing penguin inspired joy on its release, so it’s a film that has gained my fondness if not my respect.
When tap-dancer Mumble is born into an all-singing Emperor penguin society that orders him to “stop this freakishness with the feet” he embarks upon a perilous journey in an attempt to solve the food crisis and become accepted. The first half of the film centered on the charmless Emperors is kept afloat solely by the cute-factor of dancing penguins and the occasional regurgitation joke. The Morgan Freeman-esque narration doesn’t help, being so derivative of March of the Penguins that it almost borders on parody. Thankfully when Mumble gets out into the wider Antarctic world the supporting characters inject a much-needed dose of humour, with the Adelie Amigos stealing the show as wannabe Latino lovers. The effectively surreal and ‘alien’ introduction of the humans also stands out, with use of live-action and evocative sound design as they stare, muted and obscured behind glass.
The inevitable environmental message takes precedence by the end, but what impressed me is the scathing attack on organised religion. The bigoted elders who attribute everything to the “Great ‘Guin in the sky” are proved wrong, and the ‘all-knowing’ Guru Lovelace is exposed as a fraud. Logic is touted over mindless worship and it’s excellent to see children being encouraged to think for themselves, so after hints of something more daring the happy-ever-after ending feels like a cop-out. The penguins all dance together, somehow provoking the humans to end their plight (as if no one had noticed), because obviously dancing penguins are all it takes to make humanity see the error of its ways. This unrealistic ending comes as no surprise, but it is an unfortunate reminder that this is for kids.
Not too shameful then, but ultimately unable to replicate Pixar’s success in making children’s films that adults can admit to enjoying. Saying that, it takes a colder heart than mine to resist the pure joy of dancing penguins.
Joshua CarverPin It