Dancing through hardship: Why ‘Happy Feet Two’ is better than you think

Dec 17th, 2011

After five years to the day, George Miller continues his epic penguin odyssey in “Happy Feet Two,” and more than any recent film I have to say I’m befuddled and confused by the terrible reception it has received (although I have my theories on that, which I’ll shortly address) because while it does have its flaws, they are relatively few and minor, and there are things here that take the scope and breadth of what Miller achieved with aplomb in the first part of his saga and push it up into new heights – going even darker and deeper, broadening it in scale while keeping the intimate relationships at the core of it all. If “Happy Feet” was about how an individual can become a true angel of change and bring his community into salvation from within, then part two is about how that same individual must struggle to keep his community together in times of great struggle, as the world changes around his ears.

This film surprisingly begins to go farther down the path of a downright epic societal drama in the mold of a David Lean, or, even an earlier George Miller film, with the kind of brash, starkly bold and mythic tone that the first film arrived and left off at, with its narrative relying on the survival of the penguin colony as their world comes crashing down, and how they respond to the trauma that surrounds them. Whereas the first movie began in the light and descended into the dark and grandiose as it went along, this one picks right up from the urgency of the first movie’s end notes and only gets more dramatic from there. The core of it is entirely about how this community tries to keep together in the face of starvation, famine and vulnerability to birds of prey, and the caustic changes of the barren wasteland environment itself, which Miller incorporates as a real element of narrative impact like never before.

And yet, it’s also a more immediate story. Where the first film was structured, like “Mad Max 2” (“The Road Warrior”), as a mythic fable being recounted by a narrator whose presence in the story becomes known later on, from the very start of this installment, with it’s unsettlingly quiet opening notes as a single drop of water leads through eventuality to the cataclysm that spurs the film, that we’re made known as to the shift and flux that this entire micro-cosmic world is right in the middle of, and all of the characters are defined basically by their reactions to it – either evolve or die, which is one of the more obviously stated thematic spines running throughout the film. Indeed, most of the larger musical numbers here carry this train of thought onward from the very first scene, placing an emphasis on songs about the need for communities to band together in times of struggle and change.

Within this framework of potential societal breakdown, Miller places an even stronger importance on the relationships within it, and in particular, the one between new father Mumble and his son Erik, and his attempts to raise him in fractured times. What initially looks like the beginnings of a very similar “outsider finds his way” story soon becomes, with the arrival of the iceberg and its impact on the community, more about Mumble’s pragmatism versus his son’s misplaced idealism coming to a head, rendered in stark terms, with the character Sven acting as a more palatable and escapist influence on the child and the community at large – later on, Sven is revealed in no uncertain terms as an ultimately sympathetic false prophet. This revelation leads to the disillusioned child’s near death; and it’s only after a grand and tense rescue by his father that Mumble is truly lionized through his eyes, and besides all of the impact he has on the rescue of his society and that kind of stuff, it all comes down to one core thing on an emotional level: he comes to realize the essential value of his father’s humbleness and “great heart” toward others, simple heroism even in the face of his own peril, as in the relatively grim and traumatic elephant seal sequence or his own rescue earlier on in the film. And with all of Miller’s films, it seems to always come down to this in the end – while they might be surrounded by social and moral cataclysm of all kinds, what pushes his Max or his Babe or his Lorenzo or – now – his Mumble forward is simple idealism and compassion in the face of it all, even if it might be at first reluctant. The theme of interconnectedness is writ large through the film’s narrative, and it’s here, through a focus on this essential sense of honor and debts that Miller brings this down to the personal level – through a series of interwoven connections and good deeds that allow Mumble to rally every species behind him in the attempts to save his people, from the neighboring penguin nations to the elephant seal leader, Bryan.

It is with Bryan that the film’s “evolve or die” theme — a theme that interconnects with the overarching theme of interconnectedness and change as a necessity (see what I did there?) — comes full circle in one of my favorite scenes of the movie. Their initial confrontation is a pretty harrowing sequence, as Bryan ends up falling into a wide chasm after the narrow ice bridge beneath him breaks. The matter is complicated by the reveal of his children – he refuses to back up onto the ice in front of them because of its implied indication of weakness and submission within their species, and so falls out of sight and into the abyss. He makes it clear that he wants them taken home and looked after, and then he resigns himself to death. Mumble dives in and saves him through a contrivance with a leopard seal without a second thought, and a bond is made between the two. Later, Mumble goes off to request his nation’s help in bringing down the iceberg enough for the rest of the penguin colony to escape. Bryan tells him, essentially, to fuck off and look after his own kind. Mumble bursts back, “If I’d thought that way, I would’ve left you down in that hole!” It’s one of the few times in either of the two films where we’ve seen this character get visibly frustrated, and angry – the other also in this film being on top of the trapped colony arguing with his son over their fate – and, it takes you aback for a minute to hear a relatively innocent character like him state something like this so plainly and harshly. I like it.

Running alongside the core narrative of Mumble’s own struggle to save his people, there are a number of smaller stories occurring in tandem, including the B-plot about the krill, played by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. Much has been made of the fact that they don’t really have any connection or impact on the plot until the very end of the film – but yeah, that’s the point. They’re very much in the mold of a more existential Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and it’s astonishing that so few reviewers have caught onto this fact. Within the framework of these two that Miller concisely reduces all of the existential themes that are running underneath the surface into their core elements, through a particularly ballsy and heady sense of humor, and parallels many of the larger and more dramatic conflicts occurring above into a more palatable and less serious minimalist setting.

They’re also a large part of how Miller furthers his ideas of interconnectedness that have now come to the forefront in the sequel, through ecological extremes, e.g., the film begins as a drop of water leads to the catastrophe that defines the film, and it ends when, unintentionally, the krill, tinier than a drop of water by much, respond to the sound above and give the final stomp that breaks down the iceberg. I’ve gotta say, when I heard that Pitt and Damon were going to be included in the sequel, I didn’t really imagine that these would be their roles, but they somehow manage to steal every scene they’re in. They’re just fantastic little characters, and the first sequence with the massive whale, which they catch sight of from afar, is an eye-opening shot.

There’s also Sven the puffin, played by Moe Syzlak – although this article’s running pretty long as it stands, so suffice it to say his entire arc acts as a continuance of Miller’s examination of religion, something the film makes no bones about. He arrives in Antarctica as an accidental prophet, and is revered for his unheard of ability to fly, and the green moss that he seems to have with him. By the time the film focuses on him, he’s already drawn a flock to the Adelie’s colony from far and wide and from every species of penguin who indulge in his groupthink and cult of personality. Although Miller includes Noah the Elder from the first film only sparsely, in his few appearances he acts as a reminder of religion’s essential goal of unity and solidarity, hope and perseverance in the face of social trauma, rallying his people like a Churchill to stand together in the face of vulnerability and fight back for the sake of The Great Guin and their nation in what’s also a rather stirring sequence (which I’ll get to later on, and then even later on in passing). Sven acts as the other side of the coin, all of that drawn inward toward his own ego – initially a curious and intriguing character, he’s given himself over to indulging in the worship of himself. And yet, even after he’s revealed for the huckster that he is, Miller aligns our sympathies with him, and his better nature underneath begins to poke through. Like in most other Miller films, there aren’t any real villains, only characters at the behest of their environment, doing what they can.

There’s a moment here that really establishes what I so love about Miller’s idiosyncratic approach to film, and a real hint that tells us that this isn’t any kind of traditional animated filmmaking; it’s a quiet moment that comes right in the middle of the film’s bombastic opening medley, a celebratory sequence that really strikes home what the rest of the film is about with it’s use of the aggressively communal “Rhythm Nation” to pull us right in – but no, that’s not it. Right as the music begins to hit its peak, Miller slows it down and his framing becomes an observer – Mumble and Gloria meet for the first time in the middle of the crowd, and the way Miller establishes the history between them that precedes this second film, and so defined the first, isn’t some long and drawn out dialogue. All it takes is a shot of their eyes, their faces meeting, their breath hanging in the air as they’re framed in golden hues. There are no words, but these few understated shots of pure emotion say more about these two characters and how their own love story has developed and deepened while we’ve been away than any other I can recall. And again, it’s a mark of the superb animation team, just by the way, that Miller can rely on the fact we can read this much into this scene despite the fact that these characters are beady-eyed penguins who leave trails of guano in their wake.

There are many other moments like this in the film – Mumble contrasted against the wide berth of the colony below, screaming up at him for help until their cries become a cacophony of noise; Erik’s first meeting with Sven; the penguins all huddling together in the raging snow of a blizzard after the approaching storm forces the benign humans to pick up and leave to the strain of morose, operatic tones; and another one of my favorites, the sequence I made mention of earlier where the vulnerable colony is attacked by the birds of prey is just breathtaking in its construction – from its tense, silent beginning of hundreds of tiny silhouettes cast against the open sky to its bombastic conclusion of chaotic fight or flight on the grounds below. Miller can still stage a scene like this better than anyone working currently, and it’s such a true and visceral action scene that it’s actually gotten me excited again for “Fury Road,” whenever that happens. And yet, so few of these sequences are the kind of eye-opening and massive musical numbers of the first, which is fine, because this film isn’t really about that, until the end, when percussion again saves the day. As a tap dancer and a hoofer from way back, I do love that we’re the heroes of these films.

And after all this emphasis on societal trauma and impending doom, the climax of the movie arrives as a positively mesmerizing stroke of kaleidoscopic, giddily euphoric brilliance. All of these elements coalesce together in such a stirring, visceral way that it seems even the most negative review can’t help but comment on it. It’s a number that builds and bursts forward organically with such pent-up, palpable energy in the way it contrasts the entire crowd of penguins in the colony with Gloria at the lead singing a version of an altered, communally emphatic version of “Under Pressure” that acts as the real epitome of all the pressures put upon them as a community in the film being released in one giant vocal swell against the rhythm of the penguins and elephant seals above, stomping and slamming primally toward survival, causing the ground to shake and the snow to fall, and the earth itself to move, with the vibrant, neon colors of the entire krill biomass responding to the beat and noise down below, all at once. This is the moment that defines and epitomizes the entire film, without a doubt.

It’s thrilling stuff, and to digress a little bit from the overall critical assessment for a minute, what’s great is that not only is all of this stuff explicitly stated without any mucking about — the thematic ballsiness of that first film still remains in full measure – but that Miller still manages to make this a true family film by inserting Erik’s story within it. In terms of narrative construction, he goes for broke and eats his cake too by having all of this thematic and narrative depth take place while somehow not alienating children or the oldies; the children relate to him and the basic outsider element of his own story, just as they did with the child Mumble from the first film, and as they grow older they’ll begin to become aware of the rest of the narrative context that defines the story. It’s astonishing how well he’s pulled this double-act off, both here and with the first one, and it’s to be admired. And that’s one of the things that’s so great about these two films, even if this one isn’t the total astonishment that the first one was. They’re right between the violent “Mad Max” films and the pastel children’s story-books that the “Babe” movies were. They’re family films, in the truest sense, for the adult in the child and the child in the adult.

The only thing that brings this film down a bit is the presence of a couple of strange out of place piss jokes – neither of which are particularly funny. Strangely enough, however, this is also kind of a motif in Miller’s movies, although one that had up until now, gone thankfully abated by whatever wise hand held the white-out over the screenplays. In the “Lorenzo’s Oil” draft I read recently there is this strange running joke that emerges about every forty pages where the parents will look for a sign of Lorenzo’s cognition, and get the slightest bit of wee in reply. The last shot of the movie was to be a golden arch of piss across the screen – and, then in the previous draft of “Pig In the City” I read, titled “Babe In Metropolis” (see guys, it was intentional) there’s a big moment not too dissimilar from what’s seen here at the beginning of the film with Erik where Babe, after causing Farmer Hoggett’s accident, goes into the barn and wets himself. I’m gonna be honest – I don’t get it, and it’s just kind of disgusting. Maybe it’s an Australian thing.

And to be fair, the film does start off as kind of an uneven jumble in terms of structure – especially in comparison to the first one, which is a masterwork of emotional and narrative orchestration. The first ten minutes or so are a good example of this, and especially during the opening medley: it feels a little disjointed and tries to pack a lot of contextual information into too few scenes. In theory I like that idea because it is intriguing how much this film relies on the context of the first film and how it moves onward from that, but it could’ve used a bit more breathing room. We’re informed of Mumble’s new place in the community as a leader, of his son’s embarrassment, of the incoming iceberg, of the krill and their journey, all in the space of about fifteen minutes. And, while individually I think a lot of those moments are great, when they’re placed together it just becomes jumbled. This is particularly obvious in the opening scene in the scattered way it seems to jump from song to song rather than allowing it to flow emotionally from one to another, as the first film did so well. It, jarring, but it finds it’s feet pretty quickly.

“Stories have to be experienced at every possible level of the human being,” Miller says. ”You have to experience a story emotionally, intellectually, viscerally. It affects the groin, the heart, the brain, the spirit. It affects an audience anthropologically.

”Some people look at the film and just might enjoy the dancing or some of the songs. It’s very spectacular in 3D, so you might just enjoy being in Antarctica and seeing the spectacle … The thing I most want is that people get an immersive and hopefully meaningful experience from being in the cinema.”

The way Miller describes his approach to the storytelling process kind of gets these two movies down pat for me.

And as to the film’s box office failings – well, “Twilight.” There, I just explained it in one word. And as for critically, well – that’s a bit more complex. From all of the reviews I’ve read, they’ve all basically taken a stance of “Hey, these penguins are singing pop songs. What’s our culture coming to, right guys?” Well, no. I mean it’s fine if you have a problem with that, I guess – but, it’s kind of lame to dismiss the rest of the film, and by proxy the first film, entirely on that basis, isn’t it? Also, it’s a little hipster, you hipsters. Put your coffee down, take your comically large glasses off and get back in the tollbooth.

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Balls to this perspective of 2001 . . . lost me there and in wondering what the point of this article is. He cared so deeply about getting it right. I think he had a great understanding of people (and cats) . . . didn't Sam Clemens say something like "calling human beings animals is an insult to animals" . . ?


He is a genius. Top of all other film-makers in this world. No doubt. 

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