“The Hero With a Thousand Feathers” An Essay by Patrick C. Gear

Shackleton's Gravefrom George Miller’s “Happy Feet.”

Reprinted here with permission, Patrick C. Gear’s own thoughts about George Miller’s latest.


That’s right.

The dancing penguin movie from two years ago is, at least by the calculations of my admittedly eccentric mind, the second best movie ever made. Ample evidence of why this is so is required and shall be provided.

Simply put, I ADORE this film. It succeeds spectacularly on every imaginable level and even on some hitherto unimaginable ones. As feel-good family film; as ‘be yourself’ fable; as environmental parable; as resplendent visual experience; as jukebox penguin rock opera; as post-modern mythopoeia; there is no limit to the ways one can enjoy this masterpiece from Australian visionary George Miller.

Happy Feet begins with a view from beyond our galaxy. The ‘camera’ floats past stars, into our solar system, past the moon and spins down to the bottom of the earth. Zoom in on on the Antarctic ice shelf where hordes of emperor penguins strut about singing hit songs from Prince, Gloria Gaynor and Elvis Presley, among others. Happy Feet is a jukebox musical and, like Moulin Rouge, it uses this technique to translate the nature of a foreign culture (that of penguins) into terms we can understand. In real life, emperor penguins actually do find and recognize their mates by their voices – their songs if you will – and this film puts a surreal twist on that reality. So we begin by seeing the union of curvaceous, breathy-voiced Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and swivel-hipped rockabilly Memphis (Hugh Jackman) in a glorious pop-mashup. “His folks met in the usual way,” the narrator intones. We think, “Wow, if that’s the usual way, what could be the unusual way?”

Indeed, it would be ideal to know something of the life cycle of the emperor penguin before seeing this movie and I would highly recommend the French documentary film March of the Penguins, as well. In the next scene, we see the males huddling together in the frigidity under the Southern Lights, offering up Gregorian chants in praise of their God who is incarnate in the Aurora. This God appears to them as a penguin, just as surely as ours is an old bearded guy. During this winter, Memphis briefly loses his egg and this becomes the genesis of the main plotline. When this egg hatches, his son Mumble lacks the distinct ‘Heart Song’ so important in his culture and is, moreover, unable to sing at all. Instead, he is a brilliant tap-dancer, but this is initially unappreciated by his uber-conformist peers. Mumble quickly becomes a target of derision from the flock and source of endless concern and anguish for his parents, especially his father who blames himself for the abnormality.

As the story unfolds, there are many subtle, but pervasive references to hunger, specifically a scarcity of fish. Miller shows his mastery of children’s story-telling by repeatedly tapping into two very primal fears: the fear of starvation and the fear of yourself being eaten (Miller also did this in his other masterful film Babe and J.R.R. Tolkien gave us the seminal example of this technique with The Hobbit). When Mumble is not in search of fish to eat, he is narrowly escaping devoration (this happens three times, each time involving an increasingly large predator). Meanwhile, the flock leader Noah the Elder (an ironically named character worthy of LOST!) needs a scapegoat for the crises they face and finds it in Mumble. After Mumble’s dance moves finally win over his sweetheart Gloria (Brittany Murphy) and the rest of the flock’s youth, a wild dance party breaks out. The vaguely Calvinist Noah (Hugo Weaving) claims that this ‘disorder’ has offended their God and caused the fish scarcity. His father begs him to “stop this freakiness with the feet,” but Mumble rebukes him with the most simple-yet-heart-wrenching line of the film, “Don’t ask me to change Pa, because I can’t.” So Mumble is banished from the flock, but promises to discover the true reason for the fish scarcity and to return.

Happy Feet is a magnificent modern example of an archetypal mythopoeia following the Monomyth (Hero’s Journey) structure as outlined by Joseph Campbell in his landmark book ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces.’ Mumble has all the characteristics of a mythic Hero. His origin is unusual/mysterious; he is very normal in most ways and is thus relatable to the audience; and he is an outcast in his own society, but finds friends and allies in unexpected places. He wishes to do something about the fish scarcity (the Call to Adventure), but initially does not (Refusal of the Call). His hand is forced when he is banished and he Accepts the call. Along with a Greek chorus of Hispanic penguins and a guru penguin called Lovelace (the brilliant Robin Williams), who bears a ‘Talisman’ (Supernatural aid… sort of),  he Crosses the Threshold and enters the Belly of the Whale (not literally…although almost so at one point!).  Not to give away any spoilers, I’ll say that he goes through a Road of Trials and eventually returns, bringing with him what is known as a Boon to his society. Mumble’s journey is so epic it may be considered almost Christ-like (the Hero as World Redeemer).

One of the steps in the Hero’s Journey, as defined by Campbell is called ‘Atonement with the Father’ – the Hero’s confrontation with and possible reconciliation with an antagonistic father or authoritarian father-figure. Indeed, Happy Feet could be considered a parable of the generation gap, but it does not simplistically villainize the older generation. In fact, it has sort of a nostalgic admiration for that ‘innocent’ American culture of the 1950s. Mumble’s parents, Norma Jean and Memphis, are clearly caricatures of Marilyn Monroe and Elvis Presley, respectively. They are portrayed as well-meaning and (at least in the end) accepting of change. Other elders are portrayed as falsely pious or else just set in their ways – frightened by the Hero’s uniqueness. Yet Mumble does not hold a grudge against them. In the end, Mumble not only makes the world better than it was when it was given to him, but actively draws those same elders into this new world, redeeming them and allowing them to help in its creation. And all with the power of song and dance!

Happy Feet is a somewhat polarizing movie. 75% of people love it; 25% hate it (strange as that sounds), with very few in between. Because of the environmental themes (and the idealization of tolerance) the American Right attacked it viciously. I won’t dignify this with a response, save to note that it came out in November 2006, immediately after their crushing electoral defeats across the country, so they must have been disoriented and desperate for targets. Of course, this is very much an Australian movie in temperament; it does not cater to backward American so-called ‘values.’
Another criticism is that parts of the film are too scary or intense for children; and that Mumble is treated too cruelly by his peers. Let’s give kids more credit; they’re smarter than you think! Yes, there is cruelty; yes, there is terror and sadness; but there is also great joy and love. By having all of these things in balance, the movie is kind of like… what’s it called… oh yeah, LIFE! Let me say that there is nothing that I would recommend for children that I would not also recommend for adults. Children need good stories, even if only a few of them. Quality is more important than quantity and they should be doing something besides watching TV all day, anyway. Miller succeeds here, as he did in Babe, and as some of the classic Disney films did before that, because he knows that the great children’s stories do not merely pander to and occupy them but attempt to convey something about the nature of the world, something that is not necessarily pleasant. The themes of Happy Feet are as timeless as they are important. Tolerance and respect for those different from you, compassion, respect for the environment and for the dignity of all its inhabitants; these are not political issues but ones of the greatest moral importance and essential to the survival of the human spirit. In a world that sometimes seems to be becoming increasing intolerant, in a world that may be standing on the precipice of environmental disaster if something is not done, I find a great deal of hope in this story. I would not call it a children’s movie or even a family movie; it is more of an “Everybody with a Brain, Heart or Soul – Movie.”

I must mention the visual brilliance of the film as well. George Miller is not just an animator, but a filmmaker. The ‘camera’ in this movie is used as brilliantly and creatively as in any live-action film. The dance sequences, are choreographed using motion capture technology and if you observe the characters closely you can see individual performances, not just multiple copies of the same penguin (though I guess there must be a few repeats somewhere). Savion Glover, the world’s greatest living tap-dancer, provides Mumble’s happy feet. Watching this guy perform, you can see the same delirious joy of the artist in his element that we see in Mumble’s face throughout the movie.

To conclude, one of the most amazing things this movie does is seamlessly reconciles the ideas of collectivism and individuality (not individualism). Emperor penguins are the ultimate collectivists; a species wherein one depends on the very bodies of all the others to stay alive. Three times in this movie, the Hero is alone, and three times something disastrous almost happens. Mumble is an individual and unapologetic about it. But when he is banished he does not respond with selfish individualism, but rather with self-sacrificing love. Several times, Miller himself nudges us by pulling the very camera clear off the planet, reminding us how big and how small the world is and that, though not one living creature asked to be here, we are all here now and irrevocably connected to each other. He seems to challenge us: Now that you’ve seen this world through another’s point of view, will you step up and fight to save it. Will you do everything humanly possible and then some to preserve what is most precious? Will you change what you do and how you live for the benefit of someone else? Will you learn to dance?

Sadly, it can take a long time for us as humans to meet such challenges. I’ve seen it on my own island, with our own fish scarcity and a populace that hasn’t done enough to own up to its responsibility for that. It’s so much easier to blame the foreigners; to blame the federal government; to blame the harp seals for God’s sake. But there’s always a chance to change things; a chance for our own ‘better nature’ to shine through.

Overall, I’ve never seen a film that so perfectly expresses everything I believe about the world, nor one that has so many opportunities to take the easy way out, but never does.

– by Patrick C. Gear  of  Newfoundland

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