Year in Review 2006
Let's get right to the probable winner, by virtue of being the most "unique" of the bunch—if you can call a set of five CGI 3D computer animated films about anthropomorphism unique. Happy Feet is, simply, what March of the Penguins would have looked like if it had been directed by Baz Luhrmann. The opening medley managed to segue from Prince to Lionel Richie to Mr. Mister to Salt 'n' Pepa to Elvis in less than a minute—which is more differentiation than the characters have. What's the point of a film, real or animated, in which a hundred critters look exactly the same? When Mumble, the hero of this ugly duckling/penguin tale, breaks into a dance, even the choreography of Savion Glover fails to impress—which is to be expected from a dancer whose ankles are about one inch from his butt. Thus was an interesting idea undone in part by a bad choice of animals. (Imagine a cast of flamingoes in the Florida Everglades...) Rather, the choice was made when March of the Penguins started making more money than any Disney nature documentary had in decades. Marketing 1, Animation 0.
After Mumble's graduation day the movie gets really creepy, although perhaps unintentionally. The entire graduating herd moves to the glacier's edge, hesitant to jump into the water, until Mumble accidentally slips in. Once he survives, they all jump in. Seems to me this is how we got into Iraq. This is the first of several scenes in which this icon of individuality (as he might have been presented) simply gets the mob to imitate him, rather than allowing himself to imitate the mob, or possibly suggesting that penguinkind should be free to explore all available means of expression. Post-9/11 Politics 1, Animation 0.
It gets better. When Mumble exiles himself to South America and hooks up with some Patagonian penguins (some of whom sound unfortunately like Speedy Gonzales), he gets "help" wooing his inamorata by lip-syncing (or beak-syncing) "My Way." Ironic? No, just wrong on so many levels.
In the grand finale, Mumble teaches his tribe to dance as well as sing, and they dance their way into the hearts of the world's humans, who decide to protect the polar habitats yadda yadda yadda—as if the whole eco-campaign should have been led not by Al Gore but by Michael Jackson. Trivia 1, Message 0.
When Steven Spielberg accepted the Irving Thalberg award in 1987, he tried to remind Hollywood that, with all movies, "in the beginning is the word." The story has to touch the core of the audience, not merely tickle its eyes or feet for 90 minutes. There aren't many animation directors who still understand that. George Miller, who directed and co-wrote Happy Feet, will probably be honoured for trying. Which may be the best some of us who care about this medium can hope for these days.
Forget it. Take the path of least resistance. Join the herd.