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The Agony of Da Feet

I finally saw George Miller's computer-generated feature Happy Feet over New Year's weekend. I can't remember when I've so actively disliked a movie. Neither can I remember when I've seen a movie in which so much astounding technical expertise was placed in the service of such puerile ideas.

Happy Feet posterAs I've indicated in writing about Polar Express and Monster House, I don't have a problem with motion capture as such. The idea of seeing a wonderful tap dancer like Savion Glover transformed into a twinkletoed beast is actually appealing. But—penguins? Their ungainly bodies and short legs make them unconvincing tappers, and perhaps that's why there's actually so little dancing in this movie in which dance is supposedly so important. The critical clucking over Glover's secondary screen credit is badly misplaced; his credit is if anything too prominent, considering how little of him there is in the film. (Remarkably, at one point the camera moves up just far enough to cut off the tapping feet of Mumble, the emperor penguin whose dancing Glover provided.) The animators who complain about what they see as Miller's denigration of their art—"I knew even the greatest animators in the world would take a lifetime to pull off the nuances of dancing that a gifted dancer is able to pull off," he told Sarah Kaufman of the Washington Post—should be grateful that he absolved them of blame.

What's deadly in Happy Feet is not mo-cap but the photo-realistic appearance of the film as a whole, and the way that look reinforces its solemn tone. The computer graphics nag at us to take the story seriously, and the occasional mild joke barely disturbs the reverential mood. The penguins look real (although Miller cheats by having Mumble look real in a different way than the other penguins), and their imposing antarctic surroundings look real, too; we're reminded frequently that the penguins face a constant threat of violent death; the shots from outer space insist on the cosmic significance of what we're seeing. But the story is, to be charitable, jejune, barely conceivable as a dud funny-animal comic book from the '50s. To summarize: The penguins, their food supply depleted by humans' overfishing, communicate their plight to sympathetic people and win a reprieve by tap-dancing in unison. They learn that skill from Mumble, who has been despised by his fellows until then. The penguins have rejected his tapping because they prefer to beak-sync old pop songs; think of the birds as so many lame Las Vegas lounge acts.

Amazingly, some critics have swooned over what they have seen as, in the words of the New York Times' reviewer, Manohla Dargis, "a piercingly sad story about the devastation being visited on the natural world. ... As politically pointed as it is disturbing, it is a view of hell as seen through the eyes and ears of creatures we foolishly, tragically call dumb." That's sanctimonious nonsense, especially since in their behavior the film's penguins bear no more resemblance to real animals than do the deer in Bambi. (The Post's Kaufman seemed thrilled simply because a contemporary movie had given a nod to tap.) Miller himself may have recognized belatedly how silly his eco-fable is; he rushes through the scenes near the end of the film in which the penguins triumph over corporate fish factories, so rapidly that the exact nature of their improbable triumph is a little hard to grasp.

Like most computer-generated features, Happy Feet is loaded down with star voices (Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, and—of course!—Robin Williams), but I can't recall seeing another such feature where there was so much talk. The abundant gab is of a piece with the photo-realism of the characters: absent the constant chatter, the penguins would be as difficult to tell apart as the birds in March of the Penguins, the live-action documentary released in 2005. In other words, Miller tried to compensate for one artistic abdication, photo-realism, by embracing another: superfluous dialogue.

Miller consistently refused to make artistic choices, as opposed to cramming more stuff—more penguins, more songs, more talk, more predators, more impressively authentic-looking surfaces, more synthetic landscapes—into his interminable (108 minutes) film. That's why Happy Feet is not just annoying but contemptible. It's also a very successful film, with a worldwide gross, the last time I looked, somewhere above $260 million. I can't pretend to explain why audiences have embraced it. When I saw Happy Feet at a matinee, many of the children in the audience were audibly just as bored as I was—too bored, in fact, to register much fright at the film's occasional scary moments. Perhaps it's all a case of mistaken identity. Theaters last year were full of computer-animated features starring cute, wisecracking cartoon animals, and no doubt many parents thought Happy Feet was more of the same. I can't say that I have any enthusiasm for such features, but in this case I'm sorry that those parents weren't right.

[Posted January 1, 2007]