Happy Feet is a tough one to try to reduce to a single stars-out-of-five rating. It possesses two extreme split personalities, its lack of integration calling into question its integrity. Was there a struggle behind the scenes between a studio wanting another cookie-cutter cartoon animal kid flick vs. a filmmaker envisioning something of substance?
The first film totally embodies the worst cliches of the contemporary CGI animated film: dancing, singing animals talking the kind of stereotypical enthnic jive that would be condemned as racism in a live-action film. People laugh at Robin Williams’ “let me ‘splain something to joo” Mexican schtick in Happy Feet, but feel queasy about Ahmed Best’s gay rastafarian routine as Jar-Jar Binks in Star Wars Episode I. The cuteness of seeing anthropomorphized penguins shimmying to contemporary pop hits wears off fast, yet takes up at least half the film, sorely testing the patience of any adults forced to be in the audience (in my case, it was a free work junket).
The second film is more in keeping with director George Miller’s track record with Babe: Pig in the City. A surprisingly dark and edgy film, the sequel to Babe was a stealth “real movie” that appealed to adults as much as kids, having more in common with City of Lost Children and Brazil than Charlotte’s Web. After seemingly endless, I say endless, musical routines, Happy Feet slowly begins to reveal its true nature as an ecological parable. Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for turning kids into ecowarriors, but many childrens’ films have managed to blend life lessons more fully into the narrative; Toy Story II is about engaging with life, love and friends now as opposed to worrying about the future or pining for the past; Iron Giant is about breaking the cycle of violence; Happy Feet is about… either bootyshaking or overfishing. I’m not sure, and neither is the film itself.
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