When animators are so intent on projecting human stereotypes onto animals that they put cleavage on female penguins, you know something’s off base from the very start. I mean, Disney has always put fluttery eyelashes on its female animals, which is bad enough, but cleavage? On penguins?
The entire narrative drive of the movie (well, one of the narrative drives—there are many, way too many, and they’re barely connected to each other) really focuses on penguin mating. The reason the young Emperor penguin Mumble (who dances rather than sings, and therefore can’t join in all the penguin games) is so concerned about learning to sing is that, if he doesn’t, he won’t be able to attract a mate and make baby penguins. Of course, reproductive potential is a big concern out there in nature, but when over-sexualized penguins attract their mates by singing risqué songs (“Let’s talk about eggs, baby”), kids are either going to be bored by it—or way too interested.
The biggest problem with Happy Feet (other than having a plot that makes no sense whatsoever) is that the filmmakers seem to have no concept of what’s appropriate or interesting for children. On the one hand, they club kids over the head with the currently ubiquitous “be yourself” message (and, as usual, “yourself” has nothing to do with the family or community influences who might have shaped you—nope, you’re just born being yourself, and forget the rest of the world)—but then they reinforce both gender and ethnic stereotypes. Mumble’s be-cleavaged mother penguin Norma Jean talks in a soft, Marilyn Monroe-esque voice and is overprotective of her baby, defending him against the gruff daddy penguin Memphis. (Hey—it’s a cliché director George Miller recycled from his other animal movie, Babe, where he altered the fine source book by giving these same personalities to the mommy and daddy border collies!)
Oddly, both Norma Jean and Memphis are given their faux American celebrity accents by Australians (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, actors who shouldn’t have stooped to such things). In fact, most of the penguins (except our stars Mumble and Gloria) have some sort of ethnic accent, most of them voiced by someone not actually of that ethnicity, and many of them (well, actually just two, but it seems like more) voiced by Robin Williams. Hmmm . . . what do you know? The short penguins who love to goof off have Hispanic accents! The strict, stingy elder penguins have Scottish Scrooge McDuck accents! Basically, the only characters who have the courage to “be themselves” are the characters with “normal” white American accents. Anyone see a problem here?
(SPOILERS: If you’re concerned about them, skip the next paragraph, though it probably doesn’t matter, because even if you know what happens, you’ll still be puzzled about it.)
And don’t even get me started on the “environmental” message of the film, which gets tacked on and whammed into viewers’ heads. I prefer my environmentalism Al Gore-style, thank you. (I think a kids’ movie could actually explore environmental themes well and subtly, but I’ve never yet seen it done.) We learn that humans are the cause of the penguins’ fish shortage, but it’s all downhill from there, as Mumble journeys to a human settlement (A settlement with a church? In Antarctica?), chases a fishing ship, lands on a beach somewhere warm, gets put in a zoo, begins tap dancing in said zoo, launches a worldwide campaign to stop big corporate fishing, gets sent back home with a GPS tracker, and teaches all the other penguins to tap dance for the audience of humans who have followed him. That’s the plot. I am not kidding.
Hey, as an Irish dancer who does lots of clippety-clop things with my feet, I’m predisposed to favor any suggestion that dancing will save the planet. But it’s hard to tell whether the message is that being yourself will save the day or that being cute and fluffy will save the day—I mean, what if “yourself” isn’t cute and fluffy and nobody’s interested in saving you from species extinction?
One thing’s for sure: if I were a kid who saw Happy Feet, I certainly wouldn’t want to save leopard seals from extinction. The scene in which Mumble is chased by “Jaws the Seal” (my name for him) is genuinely terrifying. It’s actually one of the more interesting bits of the movie, since seals usually get the cute-and-fluffy role in films and books, while killer whales are the villains. It’s kind of a nice reminder (for adults) that one person’s cute-and-fluffy is usually another animal’s predator. But it’s way too scary for small children.
I had such high hopes for Happy Feet. Sigh. It would have been much better if it hadn’t bothered with the illusion of a plot and had just focused on the dancing penguins.
Oh, and one final thing: Mumble looks frighteningly like Elijah Wood (who voices him), buggy blue eyes and all. What on earth is a penguin doing with blue eyes? And why, for goodness’ sakes, doesn’t he ever molt?
Add comment November 25th, 2006