Tag Archives: George Miller

“Dancing Through Hardship: Why Happy Feet Two Is Better Than You Think” @ The Moving Arts Film Journal

 

You all knew there had to be a reason I was a little bit late writing about this one, I’m sure.  In any case, here it is – my thoughts on George Miller’s unfairly maligned Happy Feet Two, presented in the fullest critical extension, was just published over at The Moving Arts Film Journal. I’m kind of proud of this piece on a personal level, considering I managed to write it when I was sick with an exacerbated case of the flu, from overwork and copious smoking.  Give it a look-see.

Oh, and by the way – I’m back!

😀

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“Marching Through A Blizzard At The Bottom of The World” – An Expanded Look at George Miller’s Happy Feet @ The Moving Arts Film Journal

George Miller’s wonderfully idiosyncratic piece of animation Happy Feet is experiencing of late one of those weird resurgences in critical popularity that a lot of movies seem to get, four and five years after their initial release. All over, people are starting to realize that this was a film that was doing a lot of new and interesting things, both visually and narratively, and that it deserved a lot more attention than it got – which is saying something, considering the media blitz surrounding its theatrical run. And considering this, I thought I’d take a look at just how it fits into the director’s filmography, in both a visual and thematic sense, by expanding the piece I’d done on it with Glenn Heath at the beginning of last year for our retrospective of the previous decade three-fold, taking a look at the continued use and presence of the barren, biting wasteland in his all of his films, and the implicit societal myths he creates within them, among other things. It was published just recently over at The Moving Arts Film Journal. And, you can read it here.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – Discussion the Eighth

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

MATCH CUTS: I discovered Mulholland Dr. the weekend it came out, I was 20 years old, and visibly shaken after the screening. It was one of the first films where I was completely taken with the “feeling” of the film, even if the narrative itself wasn’t clear. This feeling got under my skin like no other film, and it’s only gotten more pronounced with the passing years. It’s something about Lynch’s cutting indictment of Hollywood, the abuses, compromises, and the manipulation. It’s the best horror film of the last twenty years, and it’s because there is so much left up to the viewer.
THE FILMIST: I saw Mullholland Dr. only recently – which is strange, because it’s one of his most well-received films of that last fifteen or twenty years. And, I think it does the film kind of a disservice to talk about it in terms of narrative or plot, even though there is one, of sorts, because – as you mentioned – this is a film that seems to deal in the evocation of certain emotions that burrow themselves up deep in your veins, festering and brooding, and it’s only later when we start to search for the ‘method behind the madness,’ if I can go ahead and use a cliche’. I described The Fall as a ‘fever dream,’ and I think that label fits this film to a ‘t,’ as well – but, it’s something more urbane, something more harsh.
M: Well, this is a fever nightmare, and absolutely devastating when you think about the degeneration of hope, connection, and trust, and this film is not about narrative at all, but the construction of mood from the ground up. The shadows really come to mind, and the music, how it supports the menacing glances of the actors. Everything stems from this desire to provoke emotion, provoke a reaction from the disjointed collection of horrific moments.
F: I think what springs to mind immediately is the beginning of the film, which is almost a series of completely disjointed images – the dancing crowd, the faces, the quick, loud flashes of noise and light during the car ride. There’s no real logical sense to it ostensibly, like most of Lynch’s more experimental works, but – it’s driving at something, what we’re not sure of, but we can feel it in our throats.
M: I’ve heard theories that it’s the jitterbug contest Betty supposedly won, but it really doesn’t do it any justice to try and explain anything. It’s the fact that Lynch is giving us these images that are supposed to be positive, or at least jovial and safe, but driving this intense darkness into them, the overlap of the images, the diabolical movement of the bodies and faces. Then, the darkness of the shot behind the limo. You’re right, Lynch is leading us somewhere very disturbing.
F: And, then there’s this whole business with a ‘blue key,’ behind everything else. What are your thoughts on this particular element of the film, hoss?
M: Well, I’d venture a guess that the key unlocks the darkness of reality. The first half really promotes this connection between Rita and Betty, and that key really reveals the flip side of the dream, the nightmare where Betty turns into this downtrodden waitress, envious, unsuccessful, and completely self destructive. But the film is all about identity, and much like Inland Empire, this film shows how Hollywood deconstructs identity, changes it for it’s own good, for it’s own profit, which is the ultimate destruction of human complexity. It breaks a person down to the surface, something that can be manipulated forever.
F: Quite so – you know, one of the most interesting interpretations of the film I’ve read so far is that the stories of Rita and Betty take place in parallel universes that just kind of intersect and bounce off of each other, every so often – but then, I suppose that’s as likely as the whole film just being one big dream sequence is.
M: And it’s great that the film doesn’t limit this approach to Betty and Rita, and the feeling is like an infection rampaging through Hollywood in general, tainting the director especially. THis film is the epitome of mood.
F: Yes, indeed – I’ve also heard the same thing applied to Diane and Betty, as well, and Diane and Carmilla. It’s like an ever-moving kaleidoscope of potential relationships and reflections, through colors and shadow.
M: The film is a revolving mirror, just like you said, but it changes with each viewing, which is very unique in film these days. Sometimes I really connect with Betty (the obvious choice), but at other times I see the pain in the supporting characters’ eyes, or the true evil in the Cowboy’s facial expression. It kind of depends on what mood you the viewer are in.
F: In the great pantheon of modern filmmakers, Lynch seems kind of like an impish trickster god of some kind, constantly dizzying us with his own unique brand of mysticism. With this film, he seems to have done so even in regards to his actors and actresses – when you read interviews with them, Naomi Watts, Melissa George, and everybody else, it’s obvious that the film appears as willfully obtuse to them as it does to us. And, perhaps that’s the great indicator that this isn’t just a collection of cheap parlor tricks, but a genuine experiment. Lynch laughs like a madman, above everyone else.
M: Yeah, Lynch is always working toward unearthing something awful within the mundane, like the brutal murders in Twin Peaks. But with Mulholland Dr., his target is the very art of performance, the very core of Hollywood’s power. So the terror resides in popular trends, shifts in consciousness, manipulations of imagery, something that the folks of Twin Peaks might see at the drive in. But there’s a direct connection between the two, and it’s in the human nature that Lynch is dissecting, that something evil is just around the corner (like the bum outside of Winkies), or just beyond the shadow (Cowboy).
F: Yes, indeed.
M: It’s what makes him such an interesting director. The fact that he takes his love for Classical Hollywood Cinema, and slices it to pieces with this unnerving twist of the screws. There are certain scenes in Mulholland Dr. that freak me out every time, like the “There is no Band” moment. That everything we enjoy in life, including actual relationships, might just be an act. A facade for disappointment, for horror, for all the elements we can’t bring ourselves to stare right in the face.
F: Exactly. His is a filmography of disillusionment revealed under the coverlet of our day-to-day existence – which is, by itself, a scary train of thought; his films are, in the best way, like those people on the bus who believe that our modern culture, our relationships to each other, even our own personalities, have no meaning – which is a notion that just frightens the bejesus out of me, for some reason or another. Although, you know what this film reminded me of, the first time I sat down and watched it? It wasn’t “Twin Peaks,” despite the strong relationship between the two both on a trivial level (with this film’s intended origin as a TV pilot, and so on) and on a narrative level – but, “Wild Palms,” that early 1990’s TV Show with Jim Belushi, what with the criticism you’d brought up against Hollywood and the media, and the imagery feeling strikingly similar.
M: I haven’t see that, but it’s definitely apparent here. I also find it really disturbing when Betty/Diane envisions the old people as small ants, laughing maniacally and dancing, which invariably drive her to shoot herself.
F: Frightening stuff.
M: A lot of people around the Web have been talking Watts’ performance up as possibly the best of the decade. i’d agree with that since she is equal parts snake and lamb, innocent and aggressor, hers is such a layered incarnation of pain and anguish, but also hope and unrequited love. To be able to achieve those polar opposites in a performance is amazing.
F:: Indeed it is – I wish she’d done more stuff working on this level, because she pulls it off here with considerable aplomb.
M: I’ll admit that this film is tough to write about, but watching it again for this project, it reminded me what brilliant filmmaking represents, guiding the viewer down a corridor of emotions, a tunnel of possibilities. Modern films tend to force us to look a certain direction, but Lynch opens doors for the viewer, into all these different, terrible, beautiful places.
F: It’s an intriguing film, certainly – and, it’s got its own reserved spot on my epilogue post, after all these machinations are finished.
M: Excellent, why don’t you lead us to a much more happier place with your selection.
F: Indubitably. When Happy Feet was first released, I had no real inkling of what it was about, and no real interest in it until I’d noticed George Miller’s name down below – you can chalk this up to the intentionally misleading ad campaign, which really was quite bad, as many others have written about. But, the finished film was anything but – Miller’s taken what is an essentially throw-pillow concept and found a way to take it for all of its potential resonance, turning it into something societal, something epic and spanning. It’s something much in the same mythological vane of his previous films, especially the second and third Mad Max movies, and Babe 2 – and, astonishingly, he’s found a way to make a dancing penguin not look completely and unintentionally silly. That alone is an amazing feat, I’m sure you’ll agree.

M: Absolutely, I completely dismissed this film when it was released, but caught up with it on DVD. I remember watching it three times in one weekend, having been blown away. It’s one of the few films that poses questions within a children’s narrative, about the world, the environment, the future of this planet, these grand questions that kids and adults alike need to consider.

F: Yes – viewing it as a children’s film, Miller seems to have returned to what was the true intent of that particular genre of film, not of a movie that leaves a stagnant impression on a young viewer, but one that grows with him or her, whose implications become gradually more and more obvious as the viewer gets older, much like Don Bluth’s initial Land Before Time film, or any of those other considerably morally complex animated fables of the seventies and eighties. It’s a shame that that we hadn’t the opportunity to compare and contrast the film with Pixar’s WALL-E, a couple of weeks back. That would’ve been interesting, I think.

M: It respects the viewer, both young and old. It’s essentially an origin story about a savior, but it’s an ideology born of joy, dance, and subversion, something that keen adults really respond to.
F: It’s interesting you mention the ‘savior’ aspect of the story, because that’s one I’ve heard a lot about, of late – Davey Morrison, a writer for The Examiner whose followed our respective posts and discussions from start to finish, wrote a paper on the film just recently examining it from that same angle, comparing the overall arc of story and Mumble’s character to The Pharisees and Jesus, and all of that. It’s an interesting take, one I can agree with in the context of the film’s focus on the religious aspect of the penguins, and it’s even more interesting when one looks and sees that there are even some people who’ve gone in the completely opposite direction, seeing the main character as a sort of “atheist maverick for our times,” to quote The New Statesman.
M: It’s an angle I haven’t really address in my own writing about the film. I’ve focused more intently on the use of landscape in the film, and the juxtaposition of the natural order of things with the chaotic clutter of the human world. But Miller seems to grasp genre here better than any of this other films. I teach this film for my Film Analysis class because it contains every major genre, representing the musical obviously, but the romance picture, the action film, the adventure, and even elements of Horror, most notably the Zoo sequence, which is just damning from so many angles.
F: And, it ties them together so cogently that there’s barely a hair over-turned. It’s interesting how well Miller’s kinetic shooting style seems to lend itself to the musical form – outside of the film’s true-blue chase sequences, the Boogie Wonderland scene that marks the midpoint of the film, the ‘contact’ sequence near the end, and so on, all really extend the same kind of focus on rhythm and lyricism that was at the center of his Mad Max films. Or, the first two, at least. Speaking of juxtapositions, Miller’s reflective use of tone in the film deserves mention, as well – moving from light-hearted into the mythological, and so on. What were your thoughts on it?
M: It balances all of the things you mentioned, so well that it seamlessly becomes this incredible synergy of genres. But I’ve always flocked to Miller’s use of sky, mountains, snow, sand, all the elemental aspects of this film and Mad Max, and Babe 2. How often does the light blue sky frame Miller’s heroes? He has a wonderful grasp on the connection between environment and character.
F: In this film more than the others, I think, because the environment seems to actually become a character in the film – much like the use of the desert in the third Mad Max film, and in the second to a somewhat lesser extent. Or, if not a character, then a reflection of the characters, themselves – subtle clouds in foreboding moment of sorrow, golden hues in moments of awe at the ships down below.
M: Yes, and when they crash against each other, like in the moment when Mumble and the Amigos try and cross the tundra, the wind blowing them backward, it’s just a virtuoso moment, and the film is chalk full of them.
F: That’s probably my favorite scene in the film, more than the ‘contact’ sequence or the zoo scene, or the Huddle near the beginning – because, really, when you get right down to it, it’s a battle to move from the left to the right of the screen, complicated by the machinations of the wind and blizzard around them. It’s one of those scenes where Miller’s mythic intent becomes obvious, in the best way, I think.
M: I also adore the moment after they’ve skied down the slope, caused the avalanche, and Mumble is under water, and he sees the gigantic Tractor sinking to the bottom of the ocean, disappearing into the darkness. He knows something is wrong, and it’s the instinct that drives Mumble. To change it.
F: That’s one of the best examples in the film of Miller’s creative use of tone, I think. One of the things I found so fascinating about the film, and it’s one of the reasons why I like to think of it as Watership Down‘s spiritual brethren, is that there’s an almost anthropological attention to detail given in sketching out the culture of these penguins. It’s very stark, and imperative, I think.
M: It’s wonderful that the film ends with this wave of dancing penguins, this complete glorious celebration of the cycle of life. You can’t help but root for a film like that.
F: Oh, certainly – Miller’s a great follower of Jung and Campbell, all of those cats, and I don’t think I’ve seen a better example of the ‘Reconciliation of the Two Worlds’ stage than that final moment, following immediately after the dreamlike montage of the world’s response – beautiful stuff. It’s intriguing to think of where he might end up going with a sequel, which has been in production for several months, by now.
M: Ha. that’s what I was just thinking. I can’t wait to see how he continues the saga. I mean what “conflict” could be more crucial than the continuation of nature.?
F: Well, I hang out at a lot of French film forums, and all of that. They’re all great admirers of the film over there, and some of the ideas they were tossing around were things I wouldn’t mind seeing – some kind of investigation into the implications left at the end of the film between Mumble and the Elders; perhaps some kind of giant, mass penguin exodus; or, more intriguingly, a resuscitation of the dead ‘penguin alien’ plotpoint they cut out of this first film at the last minute.
M: It will be great to see an expansion of the visuals as well. Something maybe the advances in technology could help achieve. I love that Miller is getting creative freedom.
F:This may turn out to be his most prolific period as a filmmaker yet – certainly his most productive in a long while.

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The poster for Happy Feet was created by designer Anton Ville, who worked on the film as a concept artist. A disclaimer so I don’t get sued, or anything.

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“Best of the 2000’s” – #3: George Miller’s “Happy Feet.”

– “The Best of the Decade Project” is an ongoing series of essays written by Match Cuts and The Filmist concerning the finest films of the last ten years.

What’s that, up on the hill-top?

We’re coming down to the tail-end of this project, now. The big three – the chart-toppers, the blind-siders. And, coincidently, also the hardest three to write about. And, in the whole short history of this site, I don’t think there’s one film-maker I’ve written more about than Australia’s own Dr. George Miller. How do you even introduce the guy? Myself, I’m still not quite certain, as the following paragraph will no doubt reiterate. The last of cinema’s thoroughly modern myth-makers – those implicit, anthropological followers of Campbell and Jung, before George Lucas arrived and gunked up the works –  and a college lecturer on the indelible powers of those myths on our collectives psyches and their places in modern cinema, in his spare time. The single-handed spokesman for Australia’s burgeoning film industry, and their self-proclaimed answer to our own Steven Spielberg – although, that’s an arguable comparison, I think. Here is a director whose output has equaled one film in the past ten years – and, just one other film eight years before that; much like his contemporary Ridley Scott, his is a constant and laborious refining process, with the film here in question having taken the full eight years to fully realize. Of course, it probably didn’t help that after the production of Witches of Eastwick with Jon “hey, let’s have a giant mechanical spider in the third act” Peters, he’d been put of off Hollywood and directing in general for several years, only cautiously returning in the early nineties with Lorenzo’s Oil, but I digress. Within these films, despite the wide berth between their respective releases, there is one constant, underlying story, moving through different contexts, cultures and faces, out of thousands – whether man or penguin, woman or pig – conveyed through the ultimately humanitarian eye of a physician.

Happy Feet, like the Mad Max films and Babe: Pig In the City, begins with an expansive, mythological vision of a microcosmic world in the midst of great transition. The film begins quietly, in space, which will becomes a constant visual motif throughout the course of the film. A wide, vast cosmos is spread before us, like a shot from the Hubble – a nebula. And, in the middle of it, the faintest of familiar outlines – a mother penguin, her head bent down toward her young. At first, all we hear is the softest of voices behind the stars – a slow cover of The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers.” And, then we begin to descend – down toward the Earth, as the noise begins to build. The planet takes center frame, spinning until Antarctica is at the top.  And, it’s here, in these first thirty minutes, that the tone – or tones – of the film solidifies, constantly shifting from the serene and light-hearted into the sudden and potently mythological. From the parents of the main character Mumble meeting in a relatively bright unity of song, and into the huddle of the males in the harsh, bleak red light of the setting sun, set against the primeval chants of the colony Elders in praise of their food god, whose visage appears above them in the swirling winds. The juxtaposition of these two scenes together, and how they relate and reflect off of each other, epitomizes Miller’s use of tone for the rest of the film, with a slight emphasis on the latter aspect.

And, this is a mythic tale, fully realized – and, like Miller’s Mad Max films, intently so.  Always, with the exception of the first Mad Max film, his movies have always been intently focused on the community, and the relationship of the outsider to that community; the outsider who becomes, in his words, an “angel of change.” Here, the world and the community at the center of his story isn’t quite as picturesque and water-color storybook as those found in the Babe films, and yet at the same time, it’s not quite as harsh and grim as those on the sand dunes of the Mad Max trilogy.  Here is something entirely other, a fable in the truest sense. Everything in the film leads up to it’s second hour, after Mumble is forcibly excommunicated from his colony, becoming a pariah in the most spiritual sense – and, it’s here that Miller’s film hits its most mythic stride, with an archetypal camera tracking the penguin compadres through sweeping, vast – and yet, starkly minimal – ice-lands in search of the great Other: the much whispered-about “aliens,” the identities of which the film makes no secret about, because that isn’t the point. Here, Miller employs scale in a way that creates an eye-opening dichotomy between the penguins and their environment, always a constant factor – and, moving over them, those shadowy, almost god-like machines from without, breaking through the mist and ice, represented often in a ground sense of wonderment and fear – the mythic composition of the story comes finally full circle as Mumble delves off the ice cliff and into the Unknown, and Lovelace makes a vow to tell his tale, even long after his death. That’s how you do it, Lucas.

More than any of his previous films, Happy Feet is a film that defines its characters in terms of their surroundings – framing it’s characters in against the wide, barren expanse topped by vivid blue skies, and clouds that seem to go on forever. The main character’s father against a sudden and foreboding blue sky,  watching the wives move off into the distance, and into the long, lonely night of winter ahead. Miller’s mastery of environmental mise-en-scene and composition is emphasized most clearly here, in the stark white wastelands of Antarctica. This becomes most obvious in what I consider to be one of the best scenes of the film, where Mumble and his compadres, against the eternally setting  sun, attempt to cross a tundra in the throes of a massive blizzard, only to be constantly pushed back by the winds – shot in widescreen, the scene is really a simple battle to move from the left to the right of the screen, made into a force of wills. Leaning in to each other, bearing the winds, they make their way across – into the dark.

It’s also interesting how well thought out the primal religion of these penguins is – while it acts primarily as allegory, it seems also to have been implicitly crafted to fit into the same kind of naturalistic mold as the one found among the rabbits in Watership Down – it’s a food god they pray to, certainly. And, there’s a reasonable skepticism apparent here and there in Miller’s Thomas Aquinas-esque reconciliation of faith and reason, science and religion, the individualist and the collectivist, represented in the smaller community of the colony, also indicative of his oft-quoted philosophy, cribbed from astrophysicist Paul Davies, that “science is a faster way to god than religion.” There’s a bit of the Carl Sagan here as well, remaining from Miller’s time on the film version of Contact – it isn’t overly cynical about the mythology that holds this penguin community together at the bottom of the world, and it even seems fascinated by it, despite the machinations of it’s Pharisaic Elders. This is a colony that must remain welded together to survive in this harsh wilderness, and indeed, the emperor penguin is the animal most emblematic of collectivism – and, it is this purpose that their mythology serves, as the concrete of their society. At the same time, there’s also a slight unwillingness and uncertainty about it, in hushed whispers at first – which culminates in the zoo sequence near the end of the film, where Mumble steps out of his plastic enclave for the first time and into the white light of the aquarium. And, upon asking where this place is, the only answer he gets is, “You’re in Heaven. Penguin Heaven – and, it’s wherever you want it to be.” It seems more focused on the personal relationships inside of this culture – of Mumble to his father Memphis, particularly, and the continuously developing arc of his father, by itself, as more and more his guilt overwhelms him over the course of the film until, by the end of the film, he finds himself as spiritually dead as Mumble was in the zoo.

Mumble the character is an idealist, as much as Max was a nihilist, and constantly, Miller places this idealism – or naiveté’, some would say – at the behest of a violent and often cruel world. As with all of his films, there’s an emphasis on the essential safety that the community provides, in the wasteland, and the inability of individuals to live outside their environment. The farther away that Mumble gets from his tribe, the more immediately dangerous the world around him seems to become – gradually, the size of the predators pitted against him increases, from a skua bird to a leopard seal to a killer whale – until, he ends up in a zoo, continents away. And it’s here, in this sequence in the zoo that Miller breaks the character down toward his “essential self.” As Matthieu Santelli notes, “the film revives the theme of the Mad Max trilogy and the Babe films, when the crossing of the line becomes inevitable. The danger in Miller’s films always comes from the other side. And, if they walk too far, they may find themselves trapped.” Yet, it’s only there, after months of isolation and being driven toward near-insanity, that he finds what he’s been looking for – just on the other side of the glass. And always, a cautious sort of optimism that acts as the real through-line between this and the latter two Mad Max movies, and everything in between pervades the film, even in its most darkest moments, when the main character finds himself screaming his lungs out at the faces behind the glass, staring down at him.

Music, and rhythm, both take an especially active role in the film, as well – the pinnacle of these penguin’s culture is the “Heartsong,” coming from the natural practice of the Emperor penguin’s mating rituals, represented here in iconic fashion through the use of prior-recorded music – and, it’s through this that we’re informed of much of their world, in more ways than one would think, initially – it becomes Miller’s centralized way of representing the unease growing within the penguins’ community;  along with the use of The Beatles’ “Golden Slumbers” at the beginning of the film, mirroring it and bookending the movie is a rendition of “The End,” from the same album – and, to parallel the religious, almost ‘prophetic,’ subtext of the film, Gloria’s song during the two’s courtship ritual that marks the midpoint of the film is a simultaneously somber and bombastic rendition of Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Boogie Wonderland,” a song about the loss of faith in prayer – and bell-bottom jeans, but I digress. And always, following the character is an almost Gregorian soundtrack, reminiscent of the chant of the Elders in the Huddle sequence near the beginning of the film, and repeated in defiance of the dancing below again near the end. When Mumble is awoken from his dormant egg early on in the film, it’s by the tapping on the shell by baby Gloria. Later on in the film, it’s this same rhythmic tapping, on the glass of the aquarium exhibit, that startles him from his emotional death – and into a rebirth, in a sequence that returns Miller to what he’d found so fascinating about cinema in the first place, images without sound, “visual music” in the clearest sense.

And in keeping with that train of thought, this –  like most of Miller’s films – this is a movie fascinated with the possibilities of cutting – which becomes most apparent in his musical sequences. Musicals have always seemed like the brother or sister to action films, with their collective emphasis on the kinetics of cinema – and here, Miller takes full advantage of that, adapting his headlong, constantly moving and almost aggressively lyrical style to the unification of image and music, song and rhythm, voice and dance. In a way, it’s a return to the style of the classical musicals of the forties and fifties, like Stormy Weather or Singin’ In The Rain – I hazard to mention Busby Berkeley, because what most people miss with his musical sequences is that they were entirely meant as pure escapism with little relationship otherwise to anything else in the films they were in, which isn’t the case here – but at the same time, it’s also a furtherance of those ideas, with a cast of thousands, spanning colonies and, in the final sequence, continents. A Blue Angels-esque musical sequence that, for the penguins, represents nothing so much as the equivalent of spring break, a courtship ritual that breaks out of its boundaries, a rebellion against the perched, and a celebration.

The role of Mumble is a three-way composite between Elijah Wood, Alan Lee, and Savion Glover – and, as a tap-dancer myself, it’s Glover’s role as both the character’s feet and the general choreographer of the film that gives the character an almost iconic feel, much like a Babe or a Max, or even an Odone; in contrast to what candy-colored Broadway floss might have come if someone like, say, a Simmy Slyde had been brought on, Glover gives the character an individualized and gradually evolving artistry to the noise he’s creating with his feet – sometimes it’s very “light and bright,” and other times it becomes “real hard and heavy,” to use his own terminology. There’s a real love and respect apparent here for the form, inside the film and out – it isn’t trivialized, and it isn’t made fun of, as most expected it would have been. It’s respected, certainly. And along with the character, the use of dance gradually evolves throughout the film, becoming larger and more unifying – first as a method of personal expression, and then of courtship and love, which is followed by it’s shift into something a bit more primal, a tool of mass rebellion and defiance, against those up on the perch above, who do their best to drown it out with their own ritual noise. And, as the helicopter arrives, all falls silent for a moment – before the penguins begin to move again in unison, following their new leader at the back. And, finally, dance becomes a tool of almost universal communication, as revealed by the final sequence.

There are actually a lot of interesting ways to look at the film – as a religious allegory, as a veiled alien abduction story, or as the meeting of two societies and cultures, the Indians and the Spanish, among them. I remember once, a while back, reading someone’s essay comparison between the film and James Cameron’s The Abyss, and – you know, it does make sense. More simplistically, it could be a love story, a tale of the outcast, or even the gap between the new generation and the old. Or, it could be all of those things. Whatever you consider the film – a piece of children’s cinema in the vane of Golden Age Disney, a new sort of mythic fable from the same class as Martin Rosen’s Watership Down with a sense of humor, or something that sits somewhere in between – there’s no doubt in my mind that it is something indelible, and will remain.

***

Interestingly, in my bits of reading and research about the film, here and there, I came upon an intriguingly early, and unnaturally disturbing, piece of concept art – see what you can make of it.

Like most of the other films on this list, there are a great many articles published examining the film from several other angles, though most of them are French – being the country where the film seems to have demanded the highest degree of respect. Among them are Matiere Focale’s (roughly translated) “Happy Feet: Do We Need A New Hero? (Is There Any Escape From the Noise?)” and, the counterpart to our own CinemaBlend, Critikat’s own look at the film’s editing schemes in relation to Miller’s previous films; also of note is fellow stateside blogger Davey Morrison’s recent essay, “Happy Feet: The Expansion of Spiritual and Moral Point-of-View,” which examines the film’s use of subjective camera, among several other things. Finally, there’s Glenn Heath’s own unpublished analysis of the film as a whole in  tandem with Miller’s other works, from which several ideas here and there in the preceding article were sprung, and which hopefully will in the future see the light of day on his own site.

Speaking of ol’ Glenn, his respective #3 entry, David Lynch’s mind-numbing Mullholland Dr., can be found right – over – here.

** This article was selected by The Dancing Image as one of their picks for the best pieces of blog writing on film from ’09, as of December 29th, 2009. Not bad.

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Danny Peary on “Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior.”

While it was previously reposted elsewhere on the web, the site it called home has only recently gotten a massive overhaul, becoming something entirely other, with the few reproductions of Danny Peary’s articles – including this one – nowhere to be found. While theoretically I could tell you to all go out and find a copy of Peary’s seminal 1981 tome Cult Movies, and it’s following installments, they’ve been long out-of-print, commercially. And so, for net-posterity’s sake, here it is in full, because I fear the film-gods would smite me with hot lightening if I did not move to act – Danny Peary’s essay on “Mad Max 2/The Road Warrior,” first published in the third volume of his Cult Movies series in 1988.

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“This is the second entry in George Miller’s influential, thrill-a-second, futuristic trilogy — coming between Mad Max (1979) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985), which George Ogilvic co-directed. Mad Max unexpectedly became Australia’s most profitable picture upon release, raking in over $100 million on a mere $300,000 investment. The only country in which it didn’t fare well was the United States. That’s because three months after the enthusiastic AIP bought it for American distribution, the studio was taken over by the unenthusiastic Filmways. It needlessly had Americans re-voice then-unknown Mel Gibson and the other Australian actors, which made it seem like a dubbed spaghetti Western, and then dumped the picture into grindhouses. Mad Max 2, which was distributed worldwide by Warner Bros., surpassed the original’s box office internationally; and as The Road Warrior in the United States, where Mel Gibson had since 1979 become quite popular, its fate was much better — unlike Mad Max, it detoured through resounding commercial success before achieving cult status.

I think the near-future post-apocalyptic alternate-world setting in the original is much more fascinating and frightening than the timeless wasteland in the second film (and in the third), simply because it’s a vision one can relate to and appreciate other than on a subconscious level. Miller intentionally moved out of the realistic realm for the second film, using a narrator (the Feral Kid grown up) to emphasize “that this is storytelling, fable, mythology” — having a narrator from the distant future relate a story set in the near future throws time completely out of whack and makes the story fit even more snugly into a mythological framework. And though I don’t like Max becoming a vigilante in Mad Max and think — as I wrote in Cult Movies (1981) — “it is less interesting as a story about people than as a marriage between a filmmaker’s machines (his camera, his editing tools) and the motor-powered machines (cars, motorcycles) that he films,” I still find that, overall, its characters and the relationships between them are more developed than in the sequel. However, I like both films equally, and understand why most moviegoers and critics consider The Road Warrior the better film. It isn’t dubbed. Mel Gibson has even more screen presence than in Mad Max; his character has more shadings. Whereas Mad Max is a part-biker, part-horror, part-vengeance film, The Road Warrior attracted a broader audience because it seems to exist on a higher, classier, more cerebral plane — despite incorporating much material from those not-always-appreciated genres. And as mind blowing as the car stunts are in Mad Max, the $4 million sequel, which used 80 vehicles and employed 200 stunts, is even more spectacular.

What you watch with wide eyes makes your body shake. There is nonstop action and violence. There are furiously paced chases and terrifying crashes, which are shot close up by cameras that are inside speeding vehicles rather than on the side of the road. There are menacing, ritualistic, pageantry-obsessed characters. They wear leather, masks, and other weird medieval garb, and spiked, wildly colored punk haircuts; fire crossbows and flamethrowers; and race souped-up cycles and cars (chariots for these knights) across the mythical landscape. “The Road Warrior,” stated Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice, “is an honest-to-goodness movie-movie of such breathtaking velocity that it would spin hopelessly out of control if it did not have a charismatic hero at its core.” “Never,” declared Vincent Canby of the New York Times, “has a film’s vision of the postnuclear-holocaust world seemed quite so desolate or so brutal, or so action-packed and sometimes funny as in… [this] extravagant film fantasy, which looks like a sadomasochistic comic book come to life.” As Time’s Richard Coring wrote, “Miller keeps the eye alert, the mind agitated, the Saturday matinee spirit alive evoking emotion through technique.” Corliss:

“…cars crash, somersault, explode, get squashed under the wheels of semis. Skinless bug-eyed corpses hurtle toward the screen. A mangy dog sops at a coyote carcass. A deadly boomerang shears off fingertips, creases a man’s skull. That’s entertainment? As a series of isolated incidents, no… But as garishly precise daubs in George Miller’s apocalyptic fresco, they add up to exhilarating entertainment — and a textbook for sophisticated popular moviemaking.”

Corliss was one of the few American critics to have gone out on a limb and recommended Mad Max. Like other critics, he found it easier to praise the sequel because it is thematically more palatable. In its final third, Mad Max becomes another bleak, if more imaginative and compelling, revenge film with a sociopath hero; ex-cop Max, quite mad, tracks down and brutally murders the gang members who killed his wife and baby; he loses his humanity in the process. As Sarris reasoned, “[The Road Warrior] is somewhat more satisfying as genre entertainment than Mad Max because its heroics are driven less by vengeance than a vision.”

Miller told me in an interview for Omni’s ScreenFlights! ScreenFantasies (1984) that he and partner Byron Kennedy, the late producer of the first two Mad Max films, decided to make Mad Max for two reasons. First, they had a mutual “obsession for the pure kinetics of chase movies,” from Ben-Hur (1960) to Bullitt (1968), from Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd silent comedies to biker films such as The Wild One (1954) and those made by Roger Corman at AIP. Second, they were fascinated by Australia’s car culture: In the sixties, deserted rural roads were used as much for sporting arenas as they were for transportation and there was a disproportionate number of highway casualties. (While an intern, medical school graduate Miller spent six months in a casualty ward — his exposure to road trauma was “a germinating influence on the Mad Max films.”) Max’s character was of minor concern in Mad Max. They were content to have him become another in the movies’ long line of monstrous revenge killers because his vengeance story line would allow them to pursue their major interests. However, Miller and Kennedy decided to make The Road Warrior primarily to explore Max’s character. This time they wouldn’t be satisfied having a remorseless vigilante-killer as their lead. Such an objectionable character had appeal for the Death Wish (1972) audience but had no thematic interest to them. But they were intrigued by how such a character could evolve: becoming a myth-hero with universal appeal (Miller read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces); reluctantly interacting with and ultimately helping other lost, troubled people; regaining his humanity; and, because of heroics/good deeds, receiving redemption for those sins he committed in Mad Max. Miller told me:

“[When we made Mad Max], I don’t think we thought very much in terms of heroes …. It was only a lot later, after we began to analyze Max’s popularity in places as diverse as Japan, Switzerland, Australia, France, the United States, and South America, that I could see that Mad Max was a rather corrupted version of hero mythology. The film enjoyed success beyond the normal, exploitation car films because we had unwittingly, unconsciously, been ‘servants” of the collective consciousness: Mad Max was in fact another story about a lone outlaw who wandered through a dark wasteland — similar stories had been told over and over again, across all space and time, with the hero being a Japanese samurai, or an American gunslinger, or a wandering Viking, etc.
“The truth is that I had a tough time making Mad Max. I was dissatisfied with the film and felt that we had been constrained by my inexperience and our small budget, and for a long time when I was cutting it, I honestly felt it was unreleasable. When the film succeeded financially, I thought it would give me the chance to go off and do something quieter. We didn’t imagine that there would be a sequel. But the whole mythological question in regard to our hero made us want to do the first film again, to push that character a little further,
“Mad Max is a very dark film. We begin with an admittedly harsh world, but Max is a fairly normal man, working a day job as a highway cop, and having a wife and baby at home…. But the world catches up to him and his family is decimated; and he descends into his dark side. By the end of the film, mad, angry, crazy Max has become a full monster, the avenging demon. We leave him in the most pessimistic situation I’d like to leave any character. We must question whether he’s redeemable. On the other hand, The Road Warrior starts with a pessimistic world and ends with there being the possibility of rebirth, no matter how dark the order of the day is. Max spends most of the film attempting to deny his humanity. Mel Gibson called his character a “closet human being” who doesn’t want to be involved with other human beings because he believes an emotional investment will be too painful and also compromise his chances for survival. He can barely bring himself to have contact with his dog. But Mel Gibson has a quality of “goodness” to him, a “good core,” and this comes out a fair bit in his character in The Road Warrior — so you know that Max is essentially ripe for change … you recognize he’s ready to rekindle the spark of compassion within him. And that’s best characterized by his friendship with the Gyro Captain and his regard for the boy, the Feral Kid. By the end of the film, he realizes — perhaps entirely unconsciously — that he can’t live completely alone any longer, and that his life must have some greater purpose. He realizes that he has no choice but to drive the oil tanker for the people of the compound and be the one who is attacked by the marauders. It turns out that he was just a pawn of the collective, but even as a decoy he was responsible for these people gaining freedom and a new order emerging from the chaos. He begins to believe that, like all of us, he’s part of the collective, like it or not. It’s a much more optimistic outlook than we have in Mad Max.”


It may seem contradictory that Miller attempts to establish Max as a universal myth-hero yet, at the same time, sets him on a journey to find his humanity and again become a mere human being. Alter all, most of the movie myth-heroes/superwarriors to whom Max can be compared — Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” in Sergio Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy, Charles Bronson’s “The Man” in Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), Eastwood’s Pale Rider (1985), Toshiro Mifune’s Yojimbo (1961), Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo — realize, as we viewers do, that they will never be part of the human race again. That they are already “dead” is what makes them and Max (and even the lethally poisoned Edmund O’Brien in the 1949 melodrama D.O.A.) fearless and so formidable. They have nothing to lose. But it should be pointed out that Miller doesn’t compare Max to any of the above figures, but to “a Ulysses or Sir Galahad, a hero with larger-than-life qualities and human limitations as well.” Certainly Max is as laconic a superhero as Eastwood’s Man with No Name, and just as efficient at killing off bad guys; Max, too, is left for dead by bad guys but has a Christ-like resurrection, and his humorous relationship with Bruce Spence’s Gyro Captain definitely recalls Eastwood’s with Eli Wallach in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1967). But the road warrior differs from the Eastwood character in that he is emotional about his past (he slugs Pappagallo for downplaying the deaths of his wife and baby), is haunted by inner demons (Eastwood has no past, no guilt), and, in this second film, doesn’t initiate fights — which Eastwood always does. So it’s probably less appropriate to link Max with Eastwood’s character than with Steve Reeves’s Hercules (1960), the rare movie myth-hero who strives to he a human being (and mortal), and with Allan Ladd’s Shane (1953), the rare movie myth-hero who displays admirable human traits.

Max has been compared to Shane, because he, too, is an outlaw who comes out of the blue to help a group of settlers/dreamers defeat villains that covet their property, and, while history moves forward, wanders off again into mythology. I also suggest Miller was influenced by two other Westerns. The premise of the film — a superwarrior and his amusing sidekick join an out-manned, ragtag outfit inside a compound/fort while enemy soldiers lay siege outside — is straight out of the Alamo segment of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1955); the scene in which Max drives the truck full throttle into the compound while the Gyro Captain files above and the marauders are on his heels is similar to the scene in Davy Crockett in which Fess Parker (as myth-hero Crockett), Buddy Ebsen, Hans Conreid, and Nick Cravat race through the Alamo gate just before Mexican horse soldiers catch up to them. I asked Miller about Davy Crockett — sure enough, he still remembers the excitement he felt as a kid when the picture came to Australia, and how essential it was to own a coonskin hat. Hondo (1953), with John Wayne playing Louis L’Amour’s greatest hero, is also a probable influence on The Road Warrior. Wayne and his unpettable dog, Sam, race across the desert trying to flee hostile Indians, just as Max and his unfriendly dog try to flee a “tribe” of marauders in the desert. Sam is killed by an Indian spear — Max’s companion is killed by a marauder’s arrow. Whereas Max finds temporary safety in the compound, Wayne takes refuge at Geraldine Page’s ranch, which, for the time being, the Indians will not attack, There is no counterpart for Page’s character in The Road Warrior — soon after Virginia Hey’s beautiful Warrior Woman says her first friendly words to handsome Max and he seems touched, Miller unpredictably kills her off in battle (this part was originally intended for an actor but was given unchanged to Hey). But Page’s brave fatherless son (he’ll fight adult Indians), played by Lee Aaker, who becomes attached to Wayne, anticipates Emil Minty’s scene-stealing Feral Kid. The classic finale, in which Max drives the tanker (with the Feral Kid and the Warrior Woman on board) while the marauders give chase — the Indianapolis 500 if all drivers had weapons — can be compared to a similar scene in Stagecoach (1939), but it also recalls the final sequence in Hondo, in which bloodthirsty Indians chase Wayne, Page, and Aaker and their soldier-escorted wagon caravan across the desert. Incidentally, while many people have assumed Miller borrowed ideas from the 1975 cult favorite A Boy and His Dog (a post-apocalyptic world full of scavengers, a hero with a dog in the desert, a gang leader keeping his soldier on a leash), Miller didn’t see it until after he had made The Road Warrior — he “was surprised by the similarities.” However, Miller does give credit to A Clockwork Orange (1970), presumably for influencing Norma Moriceau’s startling punk costuming, the slangy dialogue (more noticeable in Mad Max), and the ultra-violence.

In many Westerns and other action films, similar characters consciously choose opposite ways of life and become mortal enemies. The hero can understand the villain because he is much like him, except the bad guy has relinquished his morality; he can defeat the villain because he has the same capacity for violence, is as unscrupulous in battle, and has slightly more cunning. In The Road Warrior Vernon Wells’s wildman Wez and mad Max have a bond they both recognize. Wez is the vile figure Max would be like if he completely relinquished his morality. They are each temporarily chained by the leaders of their respective camps, Mike Preston’s Pappagallo and the fearsome Humungus, played by Swedish bodybuilder Kiell Nilsson. Pappagallo (“We haven’t given up — we’re still human beings!”) admonishes Max for using the deaths of his wife and baby as an excuse to be “a scavenger, a maggot living off the corpse of the old world”; he asks: “Do you think you’re the only one who suffered?” Similarly, the Humungus cools off scavenger-maggot Wez after his male lover is killed; he reminds him, “We’ve all lost someone we love.” For a brief startling moment, the masked Humungus (what a great dirty wrestler he’d be!) has dignity and the grotesque Wez is as sympathetic as Max. Miller has reminded us that before normal society disintegrated because of a worldwide energy shortage — the Mad Max stories were triggered by the surprisingly violent Australian response to petrol rationing in the seventies — and many survivors let the reptilian side of their brains take over, the people who now inhabit the compound might have been friends with those marauders who now threaten them; Wez might have been a cop, like Max; the Humungus, who Miller thinks was a former military officer who suffered severe facial burns, might have served in the same outfit as his counterpart, Pappagallo. I asked Miller if viewers identified more with the good guys than the fancier dressed marauders. Miller:

“I would hope, as a storyteller, that there is identification with both sides. I think a well-told story gives insights into all forces that interact in any conflict. I really think it’s important. I find that in both Mad Max and The Road Warrior, the bad guys are more interesting than the good guys. On a pragmatic level, it’s more fun for the actors and designers to be working with the marauder, bad-guy types than the good guys who, I’m afraid, can be rather boring. If I had a chance to do the films again, I think I’d give a bit more insight into both sides. Then hopefully, the audience would be able to see that those people with the broader knowledge, who are prepared for broader connections and want to stay alive and eventually move toward the organization of a new society, should be classified as ‘good guys.’ I think the ‘bad guys’ are designated ‘bad’ because basically they have chosen to limit their perspective. They are people who say, ‘There’s no hope, there’s no chance for rebirth, so our goal is merely to survive, which we’ll do by taking what’s left,’ And really that’s all that differentiates them from the ‘good guys.’ Max is only marginally better than the Humungus [and Wez]; he is as committed as the marauders to survival at all costs, only he’s hasn’t the total amorality of the marauders.”

Like Mad Max, The Road Warrior was attacked in many circles for having excessive violence — I could do without seeing the Feral Kid’s boomerang slice off that old marauder’s fingers, but I think the violence is functional rather than gratuitous. I disagree with Richard Corliss’s claim (not meant to be criticism) that “our nerve endings [are soon] numbed by the movie’s aimless carnage.” Many people are killed, yet Miller doesn’t allow us to become desensitized to death, especially single deaths; we’re just as upset by the gallant death of the Warrior Woman in the last scene as we were by the murders of the raped compound woman and Max’s dog earlier in the film. Interestingly, we sense the worth of the Gyro Captain (who Miller believes serves the most important function in the picture since he both provides humor and taps Max back toward his humanity) because we identify with his revulsion upon seeing the brutal rape-murder of the captured compound woman — he has seen countless murders but hasn’t been desensitized either. Significantly, her murder and the dog’s are two of many powerful incidents of violence that Miller implies, rather than shows. Miller:

“I had censorship problems with the two films in certain countries because of the violence. And it was extremely difficult to make any cuts because, as you’d see if you looked at them frame by frame or sequence by sequence, there’s not much violence on the screen. They appear to be more violent than they are. That was deliberate.
“The question of how to use violence in films, or whether to use it at all, is very difficult to answer. I do know that there’s an impulse in filmmakers and other storytellers to try and confront both violence and death and shed some light on each. Of course, there’s a fine line between exploiting these subjects and examining them, And I’m not quite sure where the Mad Max films fall.
“One thing that has helped me try to put everything into context is the notion that movies are really public dreams… that we share collectively in darkened theaters. And just like dreams have functions, nightmares help us confront our dark sides. The reasons we told these post-apocalyptic allegories, these warning fables, was to help us explore the darker, more unthinkable side of ourselves. These dress rehearsals for our own deaths help us experience that part of ourselves which we are unable to deal with in normal, conscious, everyday living. And I think that’s the kind of impulse that gives rise to the violence in our storytelling. There’s obviously a need for violence in stories, as it has always been present in them, whether we’re talking about biblical stories or children’s fairy tales.”

The violence in The Road Warrior has thematic validity. The horrifying violence is what establishes it as one of the few post-apocalyptic pictures that doesn’t suggest such a future is romantic. Even the majority of compound dwellers we care about are killed off. “This world is not meant to be inviting,” says Miller. “It is brutal, scary, and forbidding.” It’s a world that has vast excitement and entertainment for us tourists who sit in our movie seats, but not even a madman like Max wants to live there — lucky for us he has no choice.”

– by Danny Peary, published in Cult Movies 3, 1988.

Credit must go to “Cueball” for his reproduction of the above promotional photograph.
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“Mad Max and Hang ‘Em High,” by Benjamin Carter

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There’s an interesting article over at Tales of Disinterest, comparing and contrasting the two films.

“I will be comparing these two texts as Westerns, more specifically as Revenge Westerns; both films are about a man seeking revenge/justice against a group of people who cause grief or harm when they sought revenge/justice against him. The differences being that Jed Cooper finds himself forced back into law enforcement in order to seek his justice, while Max Rockatansky goes rogue leaving law enforcement and ends up viewing himself as no better than the criminals he kills.”

You can find it here.

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Shots – Huddling To Survive the Endless Night

Give praise, share the cold.

from George Miller’s “Happy Feet.”

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“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.

Yes…

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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Shots – The Vermin Have Inherited the Earth

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shot0007from George Miller’s “Mad Max 2 – The Road Warrior.”

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Shots – On the Other Side of the Glass

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from George Miller’s “Happy Feet.”

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