Marching through a blizzard at the bottom of the world: George Miller’s microcosmic penguin mythmaking

By
Jan 13th, 2011


I don’t think there is a singular film-maker I’ve found myself having written more about than Australia’s own Dr. George Miller. And now, writing this, I’m still not quite certain of the best way to introduce him, if indeed such a thing is necessary at all. 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 with his clunky concretizations – 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 at all 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 vastly 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, something that astronomer Neil Degrasse Tyson notes as one of the film’s first examples of its implicitly anthropological (if that is the correct word to use, given that it’s a fable) point of view, similar to that found in Martin Rosen’s Watership Down, when interviewed by Variety: “From it’s opening, you come at Earth from space, and the Earth rotates until Antarctica is on-top of the world. From the beginning, it establishes a point of view, and you are … in the culture of the penguins.”i 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 fittingly, this is a mythic tale, a fable fully realized – like Miller’s Mad Max films, intently so. “Most of my films are, in a sense, fables” Miller has said, “in that they’re worlds that exist only on the screen in the cinema, and in a sense, like fables you see them as allegory, or at least they’re metaphorical, and you read them as you would fables. And hopefully, they’re not specific to any time … and aren’t entirely specific to one moment in history.”ii And always, with the exception of that first Mad Max film, his movies have remained intently focused on the elemental community, and the relationship of the outsider to that communityiii; the outsider who becomes, in his words, an “agent of change, evolutionary agents”iv to a tribe in the midst of a wasteland that is either physical (as in the Mad Max films, and here as well) or cultural (as in the second Babe film, and The Witches of Eastwick). 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 sensibility epitomized by the works of directors like Martin Rosen and Michael Schaack – a strong blend of the explicitly naturalistic, the real and the instinctive, with the implicitly allegorical, the mythic and the slightly fantastic. Although, they do share contextual similarities – beside those mentioned just previously, both employ a central narrator to create the consciously mythic framework of their stories, and where children are of importance in some form or another in the salvation of the society or community at the core of the story. 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. And indeed, everything in the film leads up to the cusp of its first hour, after Mumble is forcibly excommunicated from his colony, becoming a pariah in the most spiritual sense – 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 that great Other (which is a pretty over-used critical term, I’ll agree – but, with a film that works on such an archetypal level, I think we can grant its use): the much whispered-about “aliens,” the identities of which the film makes no secret about, because that isn’t at all 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 in his films – reducing his penguin compatriots to spare figures on an archetypal landscape, and moving over them, those shadowy, almost god-like machines from without, breaking through the mist and ice, represented often in a primal, visually elemental sense of wonderment and fear. 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 its characters in against the wide, barren expanse topped by vivid blue skies, and clouds that seem to go on forever, a visual motif the film shares with the latter two Mad Max films, whose rhythm of composition is similarly mythic. Indeed, as Glenn Heath notes, “When Norma Jean leaves Memphis with their newly formed egg to fish with the other females, the season changes from obscenely bright to brutally dark, and in turn so does Miller’s use of color, lighting, and texture. Memphis’ loneliness and panic parallels the blue and black hues of the icy rain-drenched environment, not only in terms of character but also plot.” Miller’s mastery of environmental mise-en-scene and composition is emphasized most clearly here, in the stark white wastelands of Antarctica, which he uses in a similar fashion to the empty deserts of Australia – pitting character and locale together with growing tension. v 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 Miller’s trademark panoramic 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 and compounded by Miller’s disarmingly simple manipulation of the frame. 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 the film posits itself primarily as allegory, this element of Miller’s penguin community also 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, and other, similar works – this is a fairly tribal food god they pray to, certainly. Interestingly, we never do learn in full about the spiritual structures of any of the other penguin colonies seen in the film, outside of the Adelies and their fashioning of Lovelace as a(n admittedly false) prophet and a sage; this poses an intriguing question, one that in all probability might be confronted in the sequel, and that is – of what shape do any of the other penguin colonies in the film’s universe resemble? Taking the film’s implicit fable structure and sensibility into account, would it be potent to say that there are, say, African penguins with elements of something resembling Shamanism within their culture? I digress, however. There’s also 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 – in fact, some, like Rajik Djoumi of France’s Excessif, have posited that much of the film’s narrative comes by way of the several abandoned drafts of that film that Miller had writtenvi – it isn’t overly cynical about the mythology that holds this penguin community together at the bottom of the world, and it even seems awed and fascinated by it at certain points, despite the machinations of its 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 antiseptic white light of the aquarium, here represented by a long, drawn-out tunnel cast in silhouette, with the light at the end only gradually coming into focus. 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.” Ultimately, the film 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.”vii 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.”viii 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 compounded by personal and societal salvation, something 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 – a device that bears less similarity to that other Australian musical Moulin Rouge and more to Gene Kelly’s Singin’ In The Rain or Ralph Bakshi’s American Pop, though within a more mythological framework – 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 – is a movie fascinated with the possibilities of cutting, editing and visual kineticism, the relationship between the pure movement of the camera and the performer – 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, something that Miller has always cited as one of the primary formal interests that pushed him forward, initially – and, in several contemporary interviews, he’s identified the self-titled sequence in Singin’ In The Rain as what he considers one of the great action sequences of cinema -and here, Miller takes full advantage of that relationship, adapting his headlong, constantly moving and almost aggressively lyrical style to the unification of image and music, song and rhythm, voice and dance. Energy is constantly pushed forward, energy in explication of character, in spurts that appear at first haphazard, but upon examination reveal a careful composition; and, like his second Mad Max film, here Miller keeps his Puffin hero exclusively in the center of the frame and set against the vivid blue of the sky above – and, near the end of the film, when all in the colony has come screaming down, the implicit visual connection between the two becomes obvious, as Mumble returns and becomes the savior of the colony, through revolt. In a way, it’s all very much a return to the principles and 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 although there is much that is similarly kaleidoscopic and even hallucinogenic at times (Berkeley’s ideas applied with narrative relevance?) – 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. There’s also a very strong stylistic connection to the Indian Bollywood films, through their textual interweaving and use of massive song and dance sequences and travelogue-esque movement to tell strongly emotional stories in an environment that is often alien to the viewer – something Miller posits he only became conscious of after-the-fact. A rendition of Freddy Mercury’s Somebody To Love early on becomes not just a song of forlorn romance, but a call for sympathy from the heavens above. A Blue Angels-esque musical sequence that, for the penguins, represents nothing so much as the equivalent of a spring break, with the contrails creating shifting geographical shapes and lines in the water, in the penguins wake. There’s a courtship ritual that breaks out of its cultural boundaries, one that seems at first similar to what we’ve seen come before, but whose tone and notes reveal a noticeably more somber context – here, Miller’s focus initially is not on any ostensibly incidental commotion in the background, but remains instead intent on the faces and the eyes of the two characters at the heart of it, constantly moving and circling each other, but always in the center. Later on, we’re presented dance as a rudimentary communicative tool, within the zoo and without – it’s an idea that has led some to interpret the end of the film as, among various other things, the discovery of sentience through an entirely other species, or even as a markedly less optimistic bit satire, as the human redeem themselves only in time to save a species they feel can entertain them. Myself, I believe the film is something considerably more utopian, and Capra-esque – there is something here about the relationship between personal and societal love, romantic and empathic, beyond everything else, something that is made obvious by film’s end, during the film’s dream-scale montage set under a softer rendition of The Beatles’ “The End,” bringing the film sonically full circle. Mumble returns to lead a rebellion against the perched, and a celebration of social salvation, something that ties the film’s societal eye in with it’s personal, as Mumble remains at the center of the crowd, physically scarred by his journey but not alone –

The role of Mumble comes as 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 Dein Perry (of Australia’s own Tap Dogs) had been brought on, here Glover gives the character an individualized and gradually evolving artistry to the noise he’s creating with his feet – near the beginning of the film, it sounds like physical white noise, without rhythm and resembles nothing so much as a physical tick, or a strange walk; yet, as the film follows the character in his youth, he 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, as most seemed to expect it would have been, given the ostensibly throw-pillow trappings of the general plot that had become known, early on. And along with the character, the use of dance gradually evolves throughout the film, becoming something larger and more unifying – first as a method of personal expression, and then of courtship and love, which is followed by its 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 a lot of interesting ways to look at the film, actually – as a religious allegory, as a veiled alien abduction story, or as the meeting of two societies and cultures, the Indians and the Spanish, which is a reading that Miller encourages to some extent – in an interview with Elvis Mitchell, Miller explains the use of dance as communication in the film thusly: “One thing I do recognize is that singing in a way of communicating is pretty human … a very basic way of communicating. When different people’s met each other, when the world was colonized, we – went out and met native peoples. They didn’t have our language in common, so the way they communicated – becoming clearer now through the record – they would use dance and music. It was through music that people first communicated – and so, there’s something very elemental about it.” And, since its release four years ago, it’s gradually become something of a favorite of online film writers, all over. 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, and it’s a parallel that becomes especially potent in light of what was removed from the film, just before its release; there seems to have been almost an entire half hour cut out of the film, involving ‘aliens’ in a broader, more implicitly extraterrestrial sense – from those that I’ve spoken to, they seemed to resemble strongly the penguin deity seen during The Huddle sequence at the beginning of the film, which is something that gives a small hint as to the thematic breadth of that plot-point and how it might have intertwined with what’s found in the finished film, and existing concept artwork seems to depict them as shadowy faces poking out from underneath the ice caverns. But, again – I’ve digressed, and greatly. 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 – either way, there’s no doubt in my mind that this is something indelible in its imageries and vision, and will remain.

Henry J. Baugh manages the online film blog/journal The Filmist, from which the original essay that this article was drawn from can be found; previously, he’s written for Chazz Lyon’s now defunct film criticism collective, Gone Cinema Poaching, and Blogcritics, as well as a festival correspondent for Einsiders, among other places. He can be reached at [email protected]

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1 comments
Teresa Tannahill
Teresa Tannahill

For Goodness sake! Since we've GOT to have empathic dinosaurs in the movie, why not just go the whole Rex and admit that it was what it was. The dinosaur holds the ailing dinosaur's head down so that it does not get spotted by the rest of the pack. It's compassion. Pity. Reptilian kindness - whatever that is. "Keep your head down or they'll see you!" Durr.

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