Monday, April 28, 2014

Happy Feet


Happy belated turkey day wishes to all of my fans out there in the dark. I just haven't had a moment to myself for weeks, what with preparing my new musical film remake of Die Hard and seeing to my other business ventures, not to mention the busy social calendar. Why, just last week I was the guest of honor at the opening of the newest Lane Bryant in Tarzana. Why they chose me for the ribbon cutting ceremony, I cannot be sure as I could not possibly look stunning in most of their clothing but a paying job is a paying job, as my agent is fond of telling me.

Normy and I spent the long holiday weekend at home at Chateau Maine. We had a lovely little catered luncheon for a few of the Hollywood old guard who are still around. Nice round helpings of turkey a la Vicki all served up by catering staff in these tasteful little turquoise sequined pilgrim outfits. After the meal, we gathered round the Steinway and sang some of the old songs and had an impromptu contest to see who could created the best night club act using only items in the room. Doris Day won. She had brought along some of her dogs from Carmel and they yodeled the choruses of 'The Lonely Goatherd' with her. There was no way my tapping on top of the piano to Tchaikovsky's first piano concerto was going to compete.

We did get to the cinema over the weekend. Our first stop was, of course, at the new dance film, Happy Feet from director George Miller starring a lot of penguins who deliver more rock'em-sock'em musical numbers in ninety minutes than Nicole Kidman and Ewan Macgregor managed in two and a quarter hours of Moulin Rouge. I was attached to this project briefly, several years ago, when the protagonist was going to be a female penguin named Mumbelina and it was to be a live action film with the actors in large plush costumes. I left the project when they went another way over the usual creative differences.

Happy Feet is part children's musical fantasy and part ecology lesson, taking place in the Antarctic amongst the emperor penguins made famous by last year's documentary, March of the Penguins. Penguin Memphis (voiced by Hugh Jackman as a two bit Elvis impersonator) meets penguin Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman as a drag queen Marilyn Monroe) and from the mating comes an egg which eventually produces Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood who seems to have loaned his preternatural blue eyes and beatific smile to the animators - tap moves by dance genius Savion Glover in a motion capture suit). Mumble, as a penguin, is different. While the other penguins sing elaborate choruses and musical numbers and are encouraged to find their heart song, he can only emit off-key squeaks. Instead, he has the titular 'Happy Feet', tapping up a storm from the moment he leaves the egg. This aberration is considered heretical by the colony's leaders (led by a curmudgeonly old penguin voiced by Hugo Weaving) who loom over the other birds like a bevy of old puritan prelates, using the rod to keep their flock in line. Mumble, who doesn't seem to mature as the other penguins do, flubs his voice lessons, gets nowhere with his heart throb Gloria (Brittany Murphy doing a Whitney Houstonesque diva), and eventually leaves the colony determined to solve the mystery of why there are fewer fish on which to feed.

The film then becomes a road movie interspersed with solemn eco-drama of such preachiness that one expects an Al Gore cameo. Mumble meets up with various other penguin species (mainly voiced by the nimble Robin Williams doing a male Carmen Miranda and a James Brown clone), has some fairly scary encounters with penguin predators and eventually comes face to face with the only species on the planet capable of upsetting an ecosystem through sheer orneriness. Everything comes out all right in the end when all tap hell breaks loose and the value of following one's own convictions is upheld.

I thoroughly enjoyed the film, but am uncertain as to who it is aimed at. While it is marketed at children, young children are likely to find some of the scenes with predatory animals quite disturbing. They will also nod off in the last third when the ecology lesson is conducted. Older children will find the idea of tap dancing penguins somewhat juvenile. Adults will have fun recognizing all of the various sources of music (which range from folk song to the Beatles, to Elvis, to the Communards), marvel at the animation effects (many of which are quite wondrous to behold) and will either embrace or be off-put by the ending depending on their political beliefs. (The film has come under a good deal of withering attack from some right wing pundits who view it as an assault on religion and right wing environmental policy - it really is neither. It's message is simply that if people create a disturbance in the natural world, it's up to them to recognize it and change their behavior to set things right.)

George Miller, who previously made the animal based family fable Babe, guides the proceedings with a sure hand. Issues of the environment are obviously important to him and he makes his points well, dressing them up in enough hijinks to keep the film palatable. A lesser director might have made a dreary lesson that would be unwatchable. He and his animation team have worked out ways to make essentially identical looking penguins into individuals and given them personality and verve. His talented voice cast has also given their all to the project and it's fun to hear how well a number of them can actually sing, especially old pros like Miriam Margolyes.

While the environmentalism is laid on just a little too thick to make it a perfect film, it remains highly enjoyable. However, be prepared to console very young children after the scary parts.

Dropped egg. Crevasse hiding. Aurora austraialis. Leopard seal teeth. Bong of the bell of the buoy in the bay. Gratuitous downhill snow sliding. Plastic beverage ring plot device. Aquarium exhibits. Rousing tap finale. 

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