Saturday, December 30, 2006

A third ice movie of the year

[Movie Review] Happy Feet is the third ice movie I have see this year. The other two were March of the Penguins and Ice Age 2 (here is my review of those movies). Each of those movies had a strong environmental theme. March of the Penguins was against climate change while Ice Age 2 was for it. So I approached Happy Feet with some interest as controversy emerged about it preaching environmentalism to children.

It began with this discussion on CNN (source):

From the November 20 edition of CNN Headline News' Glenn Beck:

BECK: All right. The director of the film publicly has said that he changed the original screenplay to amplify the environmental themes and that, quote, "You can't tell a story about Antarctica and the penguins without giving that dimension."

Call me crazy, but, yes, you can. And if you're going to include those themes, the least you could do is tell me, a parent. Tell me about it first, OK, so I know I'm walking into propaganda.

But with Happy Feet, no, they just couldn't. They couldn't shoehorn that into the marketing. That'd be too tough. I wonder if it's because they knew that people, you know, wouldn't go see it or not as many. They may not pull in $42 million if people thought they'd be watching an animated version of An Inconvenient Truth.

Maybe I'm in the minority -- and I probably am -- but you know what? I'd like to teach my children how to think for themselves about the issues, including global warming and the environment, instead of having them indoctrinated by some Hollywood director.


THOMPSON: I don't have a problem with hunters, but I don't mind that Bambi decided to have a hunter shoot the mom. Of the 50,000 things affecting America's youth in negative ways today, I don't think the penguin movie is probably on that 50,000.

BECK: Bob, let me tell you --

THOMPSON: I don't think this story is going to get you a Peabody.

It continued on Fox News:

on the November 20 edition of Fox News' Your World, host Neil Cavuto also referred to Happy Feet as an "animated Inconvenient Truth" and said that he "half-expected to see an animated version of Al Gore pop up."
So I expected a strong environmental theme and lots of controversial preaching.

Well, I don't think these guys watched the same movie I did. It was by far the least controversial environmental theme I have EVER seen in a movie -- kids or otherwise. To understand this, let me consider the environmental sub-plot: penguins are getting increasingly short of fish supplies. Hero character, Mumble, has a theory that aliens (i.e., humans) are actually responsible. He sets out and proves his theory (to himself) and is eventually thrown in a zoo for his troubles. While trying to communicate with the humans (speech doesn't work) he dances and this convinces human scientists that something is afoot. They send Mumble back to Antarctica (tagged) where upon Mumble convinces his 'tribe' to dance in a coordinated fashion in front of the human scientists. Those scientists take that footage back to the world, a debate ensues and they decide to protect Antarctica to preserve the penguins; now shown to be sentient. The penguins keep their fish and we all live happily ever after.

That was it. Nothing about the environment but about a contest over resources. But the ultimate reason the penguins are protected is because they are considered sentient not because they are some sort of endangered species. Let me tell you, if it is ever proven that an animal is sentient, it is extremely likely that our global community will get together and stop doing things that might wipe them out. More so, if they are harmless cute creatures. I believe that this is at the least controversial end of the environmental debate. It also is the least likely motivation for environmental policies today.

Al Gore was not going to pop out in this movie. Indeed, I have highlighted the environmental bits here. They were comparatively mild. The penguins may have been losing fish but didn't really seem to be starving or any more uncomfortable as usual. A good criticism of the movie is that it didn't make more of this to suitably motivate our hero.

But let's get on to that. The hero Mumble is different from other penguins; likely the cause of some irresponsible behaviour by his father when taking care of the egg (actually, a sad message for gender equality instead of the positive one penguins usually send on this front). As a result he can't sing the way other penguins do. (Singing is critical because that is the way we get lots of 70s and 80s classics into the movie to please parents and children alike). Instead, Mumble dances (which, you will recall, turns out to be better for inter-species communication than penguin singing). But he is also quite individualistic on other fronts.

He has an early childhood trauma when he is accosted by some birds one of whom has a tag and claims to have been abducted by aliens (which we know to be humans). As he gets older and the fish problem apparently grows, Mumble is singled out as a cause of the fish issue because of his radical dancing (a throw-back to the 50s evils of Rock N' Roll) and also Mumble's spanish accented small penguin friends (a throw-today to the apparent evils of immigration). Mumble objects and claims that it is not disapproval from the penguin god (the Might Quinn) but instead he thinks that it is the aliens who both (a) exist and (b) are taking the fish. Mumble then sets out on a quest to prove this or die trying. He and his merry foreigners scientifically gather evidence and discover the human fishing centre (which includes a Church and graveyard for good measure; initially looking like what Mumble was searching for).

But that isn't enough for Mumble. He wants the humans to stop fishing and so sets off over the ocean after them -- which is how he ends up in a zoo -- and you know the rest.

It is when the human scientists appear after Mumble at the tribe that their existence and, someone, Mumble's theory, is proven to the tribe including the dumbfounded elders who, up until their appearance, were denying the possibility of aliens as inconsistent with their belief in Quinn. But they convert as soon as they see the truth. Presumably, this new found cultural and religious change is only reinforced when the fishing stops and the fish return.

More importantly, the conversion occurs because a central premise -- that conformity is key to penguin survival -- is not actually challenged. It is just that you do not need to believe in a supernatural being to still conform and cooperate enough to survive (as evidenced by a coordinated dance routine done without practice or anything!).

So it is not environmentalism that is the big issue here but instead the role of science and religion which comes out on the side of science as strongly as anything Richard Dawkins has written. What is interesting is that the conservative pundits seem to have missed it; being distracted by the supposedly in your face environmental message (which was never there). The pundits did harp on a gay theme which if it was there you had to look hard.

By the way, the instructive thing is to find out what the kids actually got from the movie. I asked my 8 year old daughter (who is sensitive to environmental issues) what she thought the message of the movie was. She said:

People are different and you have to be yourself. You don't have to do what everyone else wants.
When it comes down to it, it was yet another kids movie with that message. I quizzed her on the environmental message but she didn't see that anything was there.

Otherwise, I must say that Happy Feet did not live up to its promise. The music was forced, the plot was pretty ridiculous, the penguins were less interesting than they could have been (the Madagascar penguins being the benchmark here), the scary scenes were gratuitous, the side-characters (including Australian elephant seals) were boring and the trailers were actually better and self-contained. It is not a must-see.