Oscars 2007
Animation Superstars
© 2006 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
Continuing with the Transformers theme, there's more to Happy Feet than meets the eye. George Miller's CGI penguin fable is the most "urban" of the three animated films. It has more soul, sass, and dark pathos than its cushier competition. In many ways, it's the most narratively ambitious nominee: It endeavours to soar higher, wallow deeper, and shock stronger. It works harder and plays harder, and asks the audience to do the same. It's pop art that legitimately deserved its political scrutiny (unlike, say, The Incredibles' objectivist readings, which cherry-picked and overanalyzed too few of the film's ideas). I would venture to say that it's the one nominee most likely to appeal to fans of hard-edged, challenging, psychological, politically conscious animation.

Want existential jeopardy? Happy Feet's darkness over the horizon lies in the form of aliens, who may be affecting the penguins' food supply. The journey is fraught with portentous packs of elephant seals, ferocious leopard sharks, circling raptors, barren icescapes, and the menacing howls of polar gusts under a midnight-black winter sky.

What psychological complexity? Find out how penguins make the transition from wildlife to captivity; from unsure sustenance to scheduled fattenings; from freedom to domestication; from communion to alienation. It's the anti-Madagascar, and it ain't pretty.

Want institutional upheaval? Observe how our unconventional hero uses his "unpenguin" ways to challenge orthodoxy, seek the missing truth in their ideology, inform the plebeians, and save their colony.

Ah, but there is beauty here, to boot. Happy Feet's polar desertscapes rival Cars' temperate desertscapes. The action sequences are leagues beyond the "waterslide" fun of Finding Nemo's current-riding and jellyfish-dodging sequences. The penguins are appropriately cute. For narrative beauty, there's something to be said for a film that doesn't just point the finger at the audience (the strongest criticism levelled against Once Upon a Forest), but suggests that they can (and possibly will) make things better.

Animation fans looking for an evolution in the content of Hollywood's animation mould could do worse than Mr. "Mad Max" Miller. Miller could stand to cut back on the sloppily fused musical numbers that wear out their welcome, spend more time on the courtship and child rearing without rushing, chill out on the talky "ethnic" humor, sharpen his dialogue, tone down the kawaii factor, better emphasize animated subtleties, and show he can craft human performances as well as animal ones. That's constructive criticism of a generally well-crafted film that tries to break through the modern-day Hollywood standard for animation. Talking animals and overextended musical numbers aside, Happy Feet deserves its due.
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