What a beautiful film!
Walking into the theaters with my dad and little sister last night, I wasn't really expecting Happy Feet to be such a great film despite my friend, Sebastian's endless championing of the film and declaration of it being his favourite film of the year. After all, I've gone through many 3D films this year, Over The Hedge, Monster House, Cars, Hoodwinked and the likes, most of them entertaining, but not entirely mindblowing, Cars was by far the best 3D animated film I've seen this year, and I considered that a lesser effort by Pixar.
Then, as the film went on, I gradually realized that I was watching a film that wasn't just try to make some cheap millions in the box-office during the holiday season, this isn't Ice Age 2 (didn't bother to watch), Over The Hedge (funny, but generic), or (thankfully) those Dreamworks films (which, with the exception of the first Shrek film, I've never thought too highly of). Slowly, before my eyes, it unseated Cars to become, in my own opinion, the best animated feature of the year.
I started giggling when I saw the mating ritual at the beginning of the film, where Marilyn Monroe-like Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and Elvis Presley-like Memphis (Hugh Jackman) won each other's hearts with their 'heart songs', it was an extravagant musical number, every other penguins joining in the choruses, flashy camera-work that seemed like something from Chicago or Moulin Rouge. Like Moulin Rouge, songs sung here are classic pop tunes that were reworked to fit this musical, but unlike Moulin Rouge, which I didn't even like that much, this film had me desperately wanting the original soundtrack. Hugh Jackman singing Heartbreak Hotel, Nicole Kidman singing Kiss (by Prince), Brittany Murphy singing Boogie Wonderland, and Robin Williams singing a SPANISH VERSION of Frank Sinatra's My Way. Holy crap! I never knew that... BRITTANY MURPHY could all sing so well!
(The dude sitting next to me, however, watched with stony silence.)
And that was it, no stupid out-of-place pop cultural references, no desperate attempt to parody a classic film just to appease the parents (while there was a homage of sorts to 2001: Space Odyssey, yes!) The story was told with sincerity, taking itself seriously without resorting to the sort of sarcasm Hoodwinked and The Wild used to make up for their narrative shortcomings (let's just make fun of ourselves so the audiences won't make fun of us).
While initially drawn into the story by its humour and cuteness (come on! It's a tap dancing penguin!), a seemingly simple tale of Mumble (Elijah Wood), son of the aforementioned Norma Jean and Memphis, who was incapable of singing at all, but could tap dance like there's no tomorrow, unfortunately in the colony of Emperor penguins he was in, his dancing and inability to sing was frown upon. His mother supported his eccentricity, but his father grumbled. His tormented love for childhood friend Gloria (Brittany Murphy) was made even more heartwrenching since he knew he couldn't sing a 'heart song' to attract her. Not entirely an original story, just watch the likeable underdog/social outcast character's attempt to win everybody's hearts in the end by 'being true to himself' and choosing not to conform, is still a fine message.
But this story isn't just about the engaging story and memorable characters (Mumble, after he left his colony, would run into "the amigos," a group of five misfit bachelor adélie penguins headed by the Robin Williams-voiced Ramon, adélie penguins are half the size of emperor penguins like Mumble, I assume, having not seen March of the Penguin, my knowledge of penguins are limited. Robin Williams also did the voice for Lovelace, a Barry White-like penguin guru). It's the emotions generated by the film, the sheer heroism and beauty, the exuberance and joy of watching some brilliantly conceived scenes with majestic visuals that separate itself from other 3D films. What I watched wasn't just a purely entertaining animated feature, but a masterful work of a true filmmaker.
The lyricism and visual poetry of this film was something I had seen only in the finest of Pixar films, or the greatest of those old Disney cartoons during their second Golden Age (Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin etc.) and Don Bluth's classics (The Land Before Time, An American Tail), the more ponderous works of Hayao Miyazaki (but don't get me wrong, it's just as exciting as the most exciting moments of Castle of Cagliostro). I was enthralled, because the film wasn't just something churned out by a film studio, it was an obvious work of art infused by passion. Director George Miller, I would find out later, was also responsible for the Babe films (he produced the first and directed the second) and the Mad Max films. So this guy wasn't just some hack, and had spent years working on this project.
It's timeless due to its lack of pop cultural references and stupid attempt to be 'hip', it's likely to age gracefully and become just as relevant twenty years from now. Some negative reviews had dissed the film for its sudden shift of mood towards the end, when it became not just a story about a social outcast trying to fit in but something of a much epic scale. How every single inhabitant in Antarctica had been affected by mankind stripping away the natural resources of this world. When the film begun with a shot of space, then a zooming in to Earth, my sister and I snickered at first, thinking that it was being dramatic in an over-the-top way. But we were wrong, the film was indeed aiming for the stars.
There were many scenes that were so fabulous that they remained with me until even a day after I've seen it. It's impressive because to create strong lasting images is part of my own filmmaking style, it is my personal belief that filmmaking is visual storytelling, and the aesthetics are equally important as the story. What stuck with me? Male penguins huddled together to keep themselves warm against a massive blizzard, looking after their eggs while the females were off hunting, frolicking penguins careening down a snowy mountain, an avalanche behind them, young penguins diving into the sea for the very first time, seeking for fish, performing a beautifully choreographed dance routine underwater, the majestic elephant seals (one voiced by Steve Irwin, sadly a month before his untimely death) warning the penguins of their ominous plight, a graduation ceremony at night where penguins sang, dance and partied while the Aurora lit up the night sky, and some intensely thrilling chase scenes that involved lion seals and black whales that might scare some little kids. Yeah, the film was filled with non-stop wonders.
I love films that not just attempt to break conventions (like its protagonist, this film truly tries to be original and different), but remain an immensely watchable experience for audiences. After all, since when does art has to be inaccessible? Since when does inaccessibility can be used as a justification for art, and not an artist's failure to connect with audiences?
I've tried hard to recommend this to many people (Justin, Alynna etc.) in the past day, yet the majority of responses I got was skepticism, reluctance and disbelief. Unsurprising, the mediocre quality of most 3D animated films in recent years had caused most people, including myself, to hold some sort of bias against a film like this.
However, Happy Feet isn't just a great 3D animated film, it's a great film that happened to be animated in 3D. Watch it, you won't regret it.
... what a beautiful film!
(While it's not really accurate to judge a film's quality by its box-office receipts, the fact that it could beat the well-received Casino Royale and remain number one in the US box-office for three consecutive weeks could've said something about its appeal)
BTW: I was listening to the Happy Feet CD while writing this review.
Sebastian's first review of the film.
Sebastian went to rewatch it and adds more of his thoughts about it.
Happy Feet trailer