Monday, January 01, 2007

Happy Feet

Over the past week, I had the opportunity to take the kids to the movies a couple of times. With very different experiences. I went into one film with middling-low expectations, and it failed to live up to my lowest expectations. I went into the other with middling-high expectations, and it exceeded them.

Happy Feet is the former. It’s the latest computer-animated vehicle from someone tapping into the family market which has been so effectively pioneered by Disney and Pixar. And, like the other entries from Warner Brothers, it doesn’t work. In fact, unlike Shrek, which is at least amusing, even if nowhere near as amusing as its makers think, this has virtually nothing to recommend it. The animation is state of the art. There are scenes that are fantastic to look at.

But we need more than that. Toy Story, which broke this ground, was released almost 12 years ago. Monsters Inc. , which significantly expanded the visuals that were being generated, was released almost 6 years ago. It’s too late for a film-maker to be trying to pacify the audience by merely producing spectacular visual effects – there has to be a story. And in that regard, Happy Feet is sorely lacking.

Happy Feet takes the archetype of the shunned outcast who redeems himself in the eyes of the community (think Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, or, even further back, Joseph and the coat of many colors) and populates it with Emperor Penguins. That sounds like a criticism, but it’s not. There’s precious little new under the sun, and one who demands absolute originality in his movies isn’t going to see much that pleases him.

That said, you can take your archetypal story and do it well, or you can do it poorly. Happy Feet does the latter. None of the characters are interesting. The penguins are cute, I suppose, but once you’ve said that, you’ve said everything. Aside from Mumble, our hero, they all look just the same. Three cheers for verisimilitude, but it’s tough to identify characters that way. And there aren’t any, anyway. The evil village elders that condemn him for dancing instead of singing, the long-suffering but supportive parents, the rest of the penguin troop, the girl that he adores. Types, each and every one. There’s not a single interesting individual variation.

The backdrop of the story is this - the Emperor Penguins are facing a problem with their food supply. Where have all the fish gone? And was there damage done when Mumble’s father dropped the egg? Each and every one of these movie Penguins has his or her own “heartsong,” and the heartsongs allow them to find mates. Every one except Mumble. Mumble can’t sing, but he can tap dance. The makers of the movie obviously found that tremendously entertaining, because they spent a lot of time showing it to us.

Well, of course Mumble leaves home, driven out by the conformists. And of course, he meets up with a group that accepts him for what he is, unlike the closed-minded bigots at home. And of course, he and his new friends work through various dangerous situations, surviving by helping each other. And of course, he identifies and fixes the problem in the food supply.

Well, if a movie doesn’t have to be original in all aspects to be a good movie, what’s wrong with this one? I’ve mentioned a couple of things. It’s acceptable to populate your story with archetypes, but if you aren’t telling a straight allegory, you need to provide them with personalities. For the most part, there aren’t any. And the exception, the Adelie penguins that Mumble hooks up with, are, well, offensive. If, that is, you’re offended by stereotypical hip-hop street gang lingo in heavy latino accents.

For as much music as there is in the film, none of it is original. There are smatterings of pop and hip-hop spanning the last 30 years, none of it memorable, some of it inappropriate. The one piece that caught my attention was a cover of Queen’s “Somebody to Love,” and the reaction it evoked was “gosh, I wish I were somewhere else listening to Queen’s performance of “Somebody to Love.”

The voice talent (and there is some, from Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman to Elijah Wood and Hugo Weaving) is largely wasted. One of the strengths of the Pixar films is that they’ve done a fantastic job uniting the animation with the voices. They’ve gotten great performances from the voice talent, and really integrated it with the animation to create full-blown memorable characters. There’s absolutely none of that here. With the exception of the two Adelies voiced by Robin Williams, there isn’t anything here that you won’t have forgotten by the time the credits finish rolling. And Williams, as talented as he is, has always needed sincere and significant editing to produce great performances rather than just anarchy and noise. He didn’t get it here. (Not that anyone else got it, either, but with Williams, it tends to be … noticeable…)

In any event, as worthless as the film is for the first hour plus, the last half hour is almost comically out-of-place, overwrought, and incoherent. They either wrote themselves into a corner, or were more concerned with getting their message out than producing a good movie, or both. When I tell you that we get real footage of real non-animated humans debating at the UN, and banning all fishing near the south Pole because Mumble tap dances in the zoo, that sounds absurd, but it’s nothing more or less than what happens. The last 20 minutes of the film exhibit all of the tight plotting and coherence we typically see in an episode of the Monkees, combined with all the subtlety of an Al Gore speech. Without Gore’s entertainment value.

In short, it was a disaster. The movie got several good reviews, none of which I agree with in the least. My sister and one of her daughters left half-way through. When they got to the end, I wished I’d done the same.

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