Happy Feet
by Michelle Erica Green

It's debatable, I think, whether the three nearly-separate parables in Happy Feet belong together in one children's movie. What is not debatable is that each of them is well-done and powerful, though I know some viewers (my sister and her childrn, for instance) who found the last third of the film quite unappealing. So I'm not sure that I'd call Happy Feet a great film, but it is unquestionably a landmark in children's animated entertainment . . . a movie unafraid to offer a direct political plea for activism from young viewers and the adults who venture in as well, lured by advertisements that promise simple penguins singing and dancing to retro hits.

The first part of the movie is precisely that: a parody of sorts of March of the Penguins, in which the largest Antarctic breed's mating habits are examined metaphorically as the penguins court via songs. In the Oscar-winning documentary, viewers learned that every penguin's voice is unique and that a mother penguin can recognize her offspring by its squeak after months of separation, so this makes more sense than it might at first seem. But the main character of Happy Feet, a penguin named Mumble, has no singing ability, though he has rhythm from a very young age. His dancing is treated as both a physical and moral wrong by the elder penguins, who insist that the errant ways of youth have caused a drastic decline in the local fish population. Mumble's only wish at first is to find his own heartsong to win the approval of his father and to court the lovely chanteuse Gloria.

This part of the movie is hard to resist, from the adorable chicks who are anthropomorphized only to a slightly greater degree than in March of the Penguins . . . though the latter's animals don't talk, the documentary still promotes the notion that animal mating is equivalent to humans falling in love and suggesting strong parental bonds with children. The courting couple is described in romantic terms in March of the Penguins; in Happy Feet, they have been turned into Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley. No one can believe that two such delightful singers as Norma Jean and Memphis have produced an offspring who can't sing, something for which Memphis blames himself, since he dropped the unhatched Mumble's egg. But Mumble does not accept that there is something terribly wrong with him. He may not be able to sing, but he can dance, and though this talent leads to his ostracism in the Emperor penguin tribe, he soon encounters a group of Spanish-speaking Adelie penguins who appreciate both his greater height and his tapping toes.

I'm a sucker for allegories about growing up gay. While Mumble's father's disapproval and the elder penguins' decision to banish him could conceivably be paralleled with other adolescent behaviors condemned by social and religious groups -- spending too much time playing electric guitar instead of studying, for instance -- the fact that Mumble's difference is directly tied to his mating prospects and the way it is defined as both unnatural and based on something that "went wrong" during prenatal development has a lot in common with the way homosexuality is dealt with in certain political discourse. This part of the story is developed very nicely, even though the happy ending requires that he be paired with Gloria so that he can produce his own toe-tapping offspring. Mumble's father comes to regret deeply that he rejected his son, Mumble's mother loves him for himself all along, and the other penguins ultimately realize not only that he isn't a threat, but that his different way of looking at the world is valuable. There's a bit of the same vibe as the young X-Men or Clark Kent on Smallville, where the children who are different don't care if they have superpowers that might ultimately be beneficial to others; they just want to be like everybody else.

I imagine that this aspect of the movie might not go over well with conservative religious viewers for two reasons. One is that the Fundamentalist penguin leader, who insists that there is only one correct way to pray, sing and live, is ultimately shown to be a hypocrite as well as a narrow-minded fool. The other religious figure, a cult leader among the Adelies who became separated from his fellow Rockhoppers and ensnared in soda can refuse, dispenses wisdom while taking advantage of a great deal of female companionship and eventually confesses that he is a fraud as well. Unsurprisingly, Mumble believes in scientific solutions to the penguins' problems, and he decides that the only way to return to Emperor penguin society is to figure out what's really happening to all the missing fish, since he's quite sure that his own "perversion" isn't the reason they've disappeared.

And here Happy Feet turns from a pleasant cartoon about adolescent independence and social rejection into a dark political allegory. It reminds me of Space Cowboys, which at the midpoint went from being a rather lighthearted story about grumpy old men in space to a deadly earnest warning about the excesses of the nuclear era. Seeing evidence of human encroachment, Mumble decides to go talk to "the aliens" who have been taking all the fish out of the oceans. He is nearly killed after a gruesome encounter with a fishing boat, and after that, he is taken to a zoo, the only Emperor penguin in an enclosure of African and little blue penguins, where he nearly goes mad from his inability to communicate with humans.

The three parts of the movie are merged together by having Mumble communicate via dance -- his fancy footwork attracts so much attention from the humans at the zoo that they free him and put a radio transmitter on him so they can see whether the rest of the emperor penguins can boogie, too. Ultimately, the attention drawn to the plight of the dancing penguins leads to global bans on mass harvesting of fish, which is rather sweet but utterly preposterous. It's not entirely clear to me whether the last part of the movie is supposed to be real or a story-within-a-story anyway, since it's narrated by the unreliable ex-guru Lovelace, who has promised Mumble that he will tell impressive stories of the Emperor penguin's heroics once Mumble is gone.

I can't figure out if the filmmakers had a serious message film and decided they needed singing and dancing to sell it, or if Stomp with penguins was the initial impetus and the filmmakers decided inject some redeeming social value. In either case, it's not a smooth fit, and the last 15 minutes are very surreal . . . highly reminiscent of the end of A.I., when aliens land and apparently warp time and space for the main character's pleasure. That distressing sense of unreality lingers through the end of Happy Feet. My other quibbles are that the female roles are small and clichéd. We see no leaders who are women; Norma Jean lets herself be pushed around by the male penguins and Gloria's main goal in life is to find a heartsong that matches her own. Plus the Hispanic roles are rather stereotyped, with the young males chasing after women and hanging out with "amigos" instead of doing the hard work of nest-building. All the penguins groove to R&B, Latin and post-disco dance music, but there are no major African-American voice actors and the preacher-penguin is played by Robin Williams.

My kids adored Happy Feet, and I loved the fact that late Animal Planet hero Steve Irwin performed the voice of one of the elephant seals who warns the penguins that they have little hope of convincing the "aliens" (a.k.a. humans) to stop their abuse of the seas. I very much admire the degree to which the filmmakers take viewers both young and old out of their comfort zone with cute cuddly penguins. But this is definitely not a film for all children . . . it's scary, depressing and altogether too real, despite the distracting song and dance.

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