Archive for September 2012

Film theorist David Bordwell, author of such notable books as Narration in the Fiction Film (1985) and Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1987), identifies four key features of film criticism: description, analysis, interpretation, and evaluation. Of the fourth critical activity, he asks that we consider the following slight, yet consequential, distinction:

[Evaluation] encompasses both judgment and taste. Taste is what gives you a buzz. There’s no accounting for it, we’re told, and a person’s tastes can be wholly unsystematic and logically inconsistent. Among my favorite movies are The Hunt for Red October, How Green Was My Valley, Choose Me, Back to the Future, Song of the South, Passing Fancy, Advise and Consent, Zorns Lemma, and Sanshiro Sugata. I’ll also watch June Allyson, Sandra Bullock, Henry Fonda, and Chishu Ryu in almost anything. I’m hard-pressed to find a logical principle here. (2011, p. 57; italics in original)

Judgment, on the other hand, operates beyond the subjective realm of personal preference, and within the (comparatively) objective realm of technical and artistic criteria. To have a productive discussion about film, Bordwell explains, that exchange must mainly (but not necessarily exclusively) base itself on “intersubjective standards and discernible things going on in [a] movie” (e.g., technical ability, thematic depth, creativity, emotional structure), as opposed to “whether you got a buzz from it and I didn’t” (p. 58). Indeed, “I liked it” or “I didn’t like it at all” won’t get you very far conversation-wise.

Films we enjoy but that aren’t considered particularly good when measured against higher-order criteria are collectively referred to as “guilty pleasures.” Many of us have them; few of us admit to having them. But if someone as distinguished as David Bordwell can say he’ll watch almost anything with Sandra Bullock in it, the rest of us can certainly do the same without shame. And so, in this spirit, I dedicate this post to my favorite guilty pleasure of all time. The question is: which one to choose? I could go with Miner’s delightfully kitschy Lake Placid (1999), or even Meyer’s delightfully corny The Holiday (2006). Or how about Hill’s equally silly Muppet vehicle Muppets from Space (1999)? No, if I’m going to do this, I’m going to do it right. So let’s go with my granddaddy of all guilty pleasures: Wolf’s The House Bunny (2008). You must understand: this is difficult for me to confess. While I’ve never shied away from, say, admitting I’ve watched pornography in my life, I’ve purposefully avoided ever talking about watching (not to mention *gasp* owning) Wolf’s irresistibly terrible film about a Playboy Bunny with a good heart. What movies have I seen recently, you ask? Why, I’ve just gone through all ten films from Kieslowski’s Dekalog (1989), being such a fan of his subsequent Trois couleurs trilogy (1993-1994). Oh, and what else? Um… OK, ok: The House Bunny. For the seventh time.

For reasons that will become clear shortly, The House Bunny doesn’t really lend itself to interpretation. Thus, I instead focus my review of the film on description, a bit of analysis, and, save for a few ventures into judgment, the “taste” component of evaluation. First, though, how did The House Bunny fare with critics? The comedy currently holds a 42% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. What do my two favorite film reviewers have to say about it, specifically? Roger Ebert didn’t even bother seeing it. As for James Berardinelli, who awarded the film one star out of four, his review starts like so:

The House Bunny has a screenplay written with ten-year olds in mind about a subject that deserves an R-rating. The resulting hodgepodge of unfunny, sophomoric humor and PG-13 T&A, frosted by a sheen of appallingly nauseous “drama,” makes for such a noxious brew that it’s amazing viewers stay in their seats for the entire production. Then again, it takes absorption of the full 100 minutes for the movie’s vomit-inducing power to become evident. (Berardinelli, 2008)

There you have it. This is the film that somehow managed past my quality filters.

The screenplay to The House Bunny, which Berardinelli so voraciously tears into, was penned by screenwriting duo Kirsten Smith and Karen McCullah Lutz. (Incidentally, this is also the pair behind the lawmedy Legally Blonde, Luketic, 2001, which spawned Legally Blonde: The Musical, Mitchell, 2007, my top theatrical guilty pleasure). It tells the tale of Shelley Darlington (Anna Faris), who is living the good life in the Playboy Mansion. While she is only now a lowly Playboy Bunny, she dreams of one day becoming a full-fledged Playboy Playmate. One morning, she is rather inexplicably ordered to leave the Mansion. At first devastated, she eventually finds a new home in a sorority house, where she must act as “house mother” to a bunch of socially awkward and drab-looking sisters. Being so unpopular, the sisters have brought their sorority to the edge of extinction: their university is threatening to shut them down if they don’t find more pledges. With her knowledge of what it takes to be cool and throw awesome parties, Darlington vows to help her new family find new members and save their home.

The House Bunny features an absurd storyline that unfolds in an entirely standard way: girl is happy, first obstacle takes happiness away from girl, girl finds new and better source of happiness, second obstacle takes happiness away from girl, girl is happy again. What else can be said of The House Bunny? Its soundtrack is laden with popular tunes, one of which plays over, of all aberrations, a makeover montage. And its message is borderline sexist: if you’re a woman and want people to pay attention to you, perhaps even respect you as a person, you better be pretty and wear sexy clothes.

And yet, despite all this, I keep coming back to it. Why? Because of how the film makes me feel. Whatever its faults—and I am the first to admit there are many—The House Bunny is a friendly and good-natured movie. It means so well, it is hard to blame it for being so bland and misguided. There is also one scene in The House Bunny that makes me laugh, and laugh hard. (I’m not kidding: harder even than the kitten that thinks of nothing but murder all day.) Every time I watch it, I end up rolling on the floor. I won’t say anything more about the scene, except that it involves a guttural mnemonic device Darlington uses to remember the names of people she meets for the first time.

I cannot guarantee The House Bunny will make you feel the way it makes me feel. Given this, is there anything observable about the film that makes it worth seeing? Most of what is on display within The House Bunny makes it very difficult to recommend as a worthwhile rental. That is, except for one thing: Anna Faris’ performance as Shelley Darlington. Ultimately, I don’t think I would keep returning to The House Bunny if Faris weren’t in it. She infuses Darlington with such bubbly optimism and genuinely good intentions, it is hard not to fall for both actress and character. (While she is not the only aspect responsible for the film’s affable quality, she remains a major source of it.) A welcome bonus, the cast also features another delightful actress, the striking Emma Stone. While Stone has gone on to play in much better films, like The Scarlett Letter-inspired Easy A (Gluck, 2010), Faris has unfortunately not been so lucky. Still, she can always count on me to watch any title carrying her name.

Just in case you think less of me now—and I wouldn’t blame you if you did—I am going to conclude this post by saying smart-sounding things, things which will hopefully boost your brain’s newly adjusted measure of my IQ. In Act II of The House Bunny, Darlington undergoes an intellectual makeover to impress a boy she fancies. By the end of my conclusion, I hope to have salvaged your impression of me to the point you think me at least as smart as Darlington, v.2.0! So here we go…

We have so far encountered in this post two sorts of films: a) films that we like but aren’t good (otherwise known as “guilty pleasures”) and b) films that are good (often referred to as “masterpieces” or, in time, “classics”). But, what of the role of enjoyment in that second category? I submit that this second class of film can further be divided into two subordinate categories: a) films that are good and we like, and b) films that are good and we don’t like (either at all or enough to revisit).

The second, mixed experience can occur when a good film provokes within us an unpleasant experience, like disorientation, frustration, or emotional pain. (While there is nothing wrong with not liking a film because it made us feel unpleasant things, this outcome should never bear on whether we judge the film to be good or bad. For those who are turned off by films which create uncomfortable states of feeling, and who wonder whether they can distinguish how a movie made them feel from how good or bad it is, Solondz’s brilliant, but challenging, dark comedy Happiness, 1998, happens to provide a perfect test of this ability.) For me, however, this second, mixed experience occurs for one reason only, and a nebulous one at that: I just didn’t “connect” with the material, however good it may be. Feelings of disorientation, frustration, or emotional pain will usually not prevent a sense of connection; in fact, they may very well promote it. Thus, by “connect,” I suppose I mean I feel like I have been impacted in some meaningful and seemingly permanent way.

Generally, the extent to which a film appeals to my aesthetic sensibilities (i.e., to which its many disparate, but interconnected, components are dispassionately perceived as technically and artistically accomplished) will determine whether I believe it to be good, and the extent to which a film appeals to my emotional sensibilities (i.e., to which it causes me to feel, or even think, passionately) will determine whether I like it. Films that only accomplish the former task are usually films I believe to be good, but do not like; films that only accomplish the latter task are usually “guilty pleasures”; and films that accomplish both tasks are usually films I both believe are good and that I like.

Of course, failings relating to the first task may overwhelm successes relating to the second: for example, while certain moments within Hadashi no Gen (Nakazawa, 1983) successfully compel the audience to consider what it was like to live in the aftermath of the Hiroshima atomic bombing, these deeply affecting moments are regrettably embedded within an overall clumsy narrative that ultimately diminishes their post-credits resonance (and certainly renders any comparisons to Hotaru no Haka, Takahata, 1988, absolutely moot). How the first task is carried out may also directly impact the success of the second: for example, the carefully constructed eerie mood of the gothic chiller The Innocents (Clayton, 1964) results in a more textured and ultimately satisfying sense of dread than the cheap scare tactics of most modern horror flicks. (The House Bunny’s infectious cheerfulness, on the other hand, appears miraculously immune to the contrived workings of a worn-out plot.)

An additional complication: because what speaks to us often varies depending on what is happening in our lives at the moment, films I don’t connect with now, I may connect with later. I predict, however, that films I connect with now, I will always connect with in some way or another. Even if a film stops speaking to me like it once did, the nostalgic memory that this film once left an impression on me will forever remain, indirectly satisfying my emotional sensibilities when re-watching it.

Just a few months ago, I compiled a list of films I both think are good and enjoy enough to revisit in the future. While I’ve never judged a film to be good and also not liked it at all, I’ve judged many films to be good and also not liked them enough to revisit them. For example, while watching Godard’s Bande à part (1964), my knowledge of standards regarding what constitutes competent filmmaking told me this film was impressively close to perfection. While I now fantasize about running through the Louvre in less than 9 minutes and 43 seconds, the film however didn’t speak to me on a deeper, more personal level. And so, I decided not to include it in my list of “good films that I also like.” The same reasoning excluded Lang’s Metropolis (1927), Truffaut’s Les 400 coups (1959), Fellini’s (1963), Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show (1971), Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972), Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Malle’s My Dinner With Andre (1984), etc.

While each of these films was undeniably aesthetically satisfying, I didn’t, as Bordwell puts it in an earlier quote, get a buzz from them. Of course, I still believe that a life lived without having once experienced each of these films has, in some small way, been wasted. According to my records, however, I watch over 100 new films a year, which leaves very little time for repeated viewings. And so, when I do find time in my schedule to watch films again, I typically prefer to revisit those I have so far connected with. The visceral sense of satisfaction these films provide compels me to choose them over films I am only able to appreciate on a cerebral level. And because I’ve connected with both good and bad films, these return visits may very well include anything from Haneke’s Der siebente Kontinent (1989), a powerfully cogent indictment of modern living, to, well, The House Bunny.

Reference

Bordwell, D. (2011). In critical condition. In D. Bordwell & K. Thompson (Eds.), Minding movies: Observations on the art, craft, and business of filmmaking (pp. 53-62). Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. (Chapter also available on David Bordwell’s Website on Cinema.)

For the past seventeen years now, summer has—with a few exceptions during the venerable dream factory’s early years—meant one thing, and one thing only: the release of a new Pixar Animation Studios film. For the past three years, I have been able to share this annual occasion with my boyfriend. In fact, the very first film we ever saw together in theaters was Pete Docter and Bob Petersen’s incredibly charming Up (2009). Earlier this summer, the studio released Brave, directed by Brenda Chapman before being handed over to Mark Andrews. Taking place in Middle Age Scotland, Brave centers on Merida (Kelly Macdonald), a young princess who is expected to marry one of three possible suitors from her father King Fergus’ (Billy Connolly) allied clans. Unfortunately, Merida is intent on remaining single, a personal choice her mother, Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson), cannot understand and refuses to accept. As a result, the two are constantly bickering over the impending betrothal. Seeing no other possible solution to the disagreement, Merida purchases a magical spell from a mysterious, wood-dwelling witch—a spell designed to “change” her mother. Unfortunately, Elinor transforms not into a more indulgent parent, but into a brown bear. Once Elinor composes herself, she and her daughter escape into the forest, where they attempt to reverse the witch’s spell, all the while evading Mor’du, a ferocious black bear who prowls the Highlands.

A few evenings after watching Brave at our local cineplex, my boyfriend and I sat down—in our living room this time—to revisit Walt Disney Feature Animation’s Treasure Planet, directed by Ron Clements and John Musker, of The Little Mermaid (1989) and Aladdin (1992) fame. As you may gather from the title, Treasure Planet transposes the action from Robert Louis Stevenson’s earthbound classic into space. In Clements and Musker’s reimagining of the tale, Jim Hawkins (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is a delinquent who comes into possession of a mysterious sphere. Toying around with it, the sphere projects a holographic map appearing to point the way to Treasure Planet, the purported hiding place of legendary pirate Captain Flint’s “loot of a thousand worlds.” Dr. Delbert Doppler (David Hyde Pierce), a dog-like friend of Hawkins’ mother, decides to finance an expedition to the planet. He hires Captain Amelia (Emma Thompson), a feline-esque alien, to man a spaceship christened the RLS Legacy, and a crew led by John Silver (Brian Murray), a cyborg cook. Sent down to work in the galleys during the interplanetary trip, Hawkins begins to bond with Silver. Little does Hawkins know, however, Silver and his crew are conspiring to commit mutiny, bent on stealing Flint’s treasure for themselves.

While watching Treasure Planet, it dawned on me that it and Brave share several similarities. Both films are considered by critics to be two of Disney and Pixar’s (respectively) weakest efforts. Further, both films feature at their core a relationship between a child and a parent or parental figure, and present the audience with a backstory that either informs or fuels the principle storyline. (Incidentally, the two films also feature voice-work by the talented Emma Thompson.) Comparing the two films, however, it becomes evident that Treasure Planet succeeds where Brave fails: that is, in the all-important areas of character and backstory development. Indeed, I believe that Treasure Planet, whatever its shortcomings, is undeservedly underappreciated. While Brave is not nearly as incompetent as critics have made it out to be (see, for example, Berardinelli, 2012), it nevertheless remains artistically wanting, due perhaps to the controversial mid-production directorial swap.

Some critics have noted similarities between the plot of Brave and that of Disney’s Brother Bear (Blaise & Walker, 2003). While it is true that both stories bear superficial resemblance to each other—pun half-intended!—Brave and Treasure Planet share similar foundations, as previously explained. As such, I choose to compare these two particular films, to explore some of the many elements that contribute to not only competent, but also satisfying character and backstory development.

Character Development

Having escaped their castle following Elinor’s nighttime transformation from an elegant royal into a giant animal, Merida and her mother take shelter under a boulder in a nearby forest. At this point in the film, the mother-daughter pair have two issues to resolve. The first issue is the one that brought Merida to inadvertently turn her mother into a giant animal in the first place: Merida and Elinor must learn to communicate. Neither has ever listened to the other, and been willing to do so without judging or attempting to change the other’s opinion. This is conveyed in an especially clever sequence at the beginning of the film, which cuts between the two characters as they express their frustration with one another. The second issue directly results from Merida’s actions: Elinor must learn to trust her daughter again. The mother-daughter relationship has suffered a serious breach: Merida knowingly put her mother’s safety in danger by purchasing a spell from a strange woman, and casting it upon her. Along with learning to trust her daughter again, Elinor may even have to accept some level of responsibility for bringing her to commit such a desperate act.

Under the boulder in the forest, Merida tentatively attempts to extricate a smile from her mother. A forlorn look in her eyes, Elinor turns around, resting her head on the ground before presumably falling asleep. What is she feeling? Disappointment and hurt, probably. I would assume some sadness and anger as well, however deeply buried. Unfortunately, this is the last we encounter of Elinor’s subjective experience. In contrast, we are able to infer from Merida’s persistent efforts to reverse the spell that she is guilt-ridden, that she deeply regrets what she has done to her mother.

Merida and Elinor’s relationship begins to be mended the following day, before any of the aforementioned issues start to be addressed. (If you think no “family film” could ever successfully deal with such complex matters, see how Pixar’s existentially astute Toy Story trilogy handles the prospect of death.) The best that can be said of Merida and Elinor’s reconciliation is that it begins to happen over one of two lovely songs by Scottish folk-singer Julie Fowlis. Once the song is over, however, Merida and Elinor’s relationship, apparently considered salvaged, takes second place to the spell’s urgent reversal. The key to Merida and Elinor’s relational troubles was to learn to communicate, to listen to their frustrations regarding each other without any attempt at contradicting, and to become more flexible, to genuinely want to address the other’s concerns. Yet, the two fail to have an honest and heartfelt conversation at any point in the film. Indeed, we never get a sense that Merida and Elinor have actively worked through their relational troubles. Sure, they manage to overcome a magical spell together, but unencumbered teamwork is not the same as open communication. Because of this, the resolution at the end of the film comes across as premature, and rings somewhat false. Because Merida and Elinor do not deserve their reconciliation, so to say, we are not convinced it will last.

Hawkins’ father left him and his mother when he was a boy. His dedicated mother has been raising him since, but not without difficulty: Hawkins tends to misbehave and get into trouble with the law. He has stagnated: something is holding him back from living a rewarding, prosocial life. When he meets Silver, he is at first suspicious: the creature that handed him the projecting sphere outside his mother’s tavern warned him to “beware of the cyborg.” Hawkins also comes to resent Silver, who is given authority over him by Captain Amelia. As time goes by, however, the boy begins to invest in the cyborg as a son would his father. Silver encourages him to map his own course, and tells him that he is confident he will grow up to achieve great things. We sense this is the first time Hawkins hears anything of the sort. When Hawkins learns that Silver is a manipulative crook that will say and do anything to get what he wants, he is crushed. The cyborg subsequently attempts to make amends, but the boy refuses to make peace. Quite likely, Hawkins’ disappointment is similar to that felt the day his father left. Angered, he seeks to find the treasure before Silver can get his hands on it.

In the end, Hawkins comes to terms with the person of Silver: he may be imperfect, but, despite his limitations, he remains a good person. Through his relationship with Silver, we feel Hawkins has been able to process his unresolved feelings toward his father. Although the film chooses not to explore this, it is even possible he has forgiven him. Regardless, it appears Hawkins is now at peace with the memory of his father, and that his complicated feelings toward him will, we can rest assured, no longer hinder his progress toward a more satisfying existence.

As is evident in my summary of Hawkins and Silver’s relationship, we see a lot of it. We are not left with too many questions regarding its nature or progression, allowing us to invest in it fully. Indeed, there are at least four meaningful conversations between Hawkins and Silver inserted into the story, including one that evolves into a refreshingly inspired musical montage showing the two characters bonding. (As alluded to previously, Brave also resorts to a musical montage to illustrate the budding relationship between its protagonists; this sequence, however, simply comes across as a lazy shortcut.) These interactions are the pillars of Treasure Planet: when all else fails to impress, it is Hawkins and Silver’s relationship that allows the film to remain aloft. At the same time, the two characters’ experiences regarding each other retain some vagueness, so that there is enough room left onscreen for our own interpretations, a tactic that further promotes audience investment. (Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, 2012, pulls its audience in using similar means, only to achieve a more cerebral kind of investment, by proposing religious and philosophical questions to ponder, without ever telling us how the characters are themselves answering these.)

Backstory Development

In Brave, Elinor attempts to convince Merida to conform with what is expected of her by telling her daughter the story of four princes who were to have their kingdom evenly split between them. Wanting the kingdom all to himself, one of them ultimately plunges it into chaos. Later in the film, we learn that this story is more than mere didactic fiction: Mor’du’s very origins can be traced back to the events relayed within it. Because we are not told enough about the princes and the fall of their kingdom, and because Mor’du is so rarely talked about and makes so few appearances, the legend feels appended to Merida’s story more than an integral part of it. During the film’s climax, we are even asked to empathize with the insurgent prince. Given we have been told so little about his past, not to mention his evolution since the rampage of his own kingdom, this is asking too much.

In Treasure Planet, the legend of Captain Flint and his loot of a thousand worlds is seamlessly integrated into the main narrative. Not only does the legend propel the main narrative, the main narrative also elucidates some of the legend’s mysteries in ways that further the requirements of the plot. It is this mutual relation between backstory and principal storyline that contributes to the successful integration of the former into the latter. It is not for nothing the movie is titled after the treasure’s mythical location!

Final Thoughts

While Treasure Planet handles character development and the device of backstory with a deft hand, Brave falters in both areas. From a technical standpoint, however, Brave upstages Treasure Planet in many respects. Pixar’s latest effort features beautifully rendered scenery of the Scottish countryside, and richly immersive environments. Character animation is also detailed and fluid. That being said, some of the character designs (e.g., the housemaid) come across as a little generic and could have benefited from further development. I did nonetheless appreciate the Miyazaki-esque quality of the more original designs: indeed, the wisps, the witch and her crow could very well have escaped from the parallel world in Studio Ghibli’s Sen to Chihiro no Kamikakushi (2001). (Enrico Casarosa’s short La Luna, which plays before Brave, also draws from the Miyazaki universe: for example, the sequence where the boy is suspended in midair.)

Despite making some appealing use of Deep Canvas technology, which allows background artists to “paint” moving sets, Treasure Planet features a more often than not distracting combination of hand-drawn and computer-generated technology, taking one’s focus away from the story. Still, the film manages to fashion a unique and imaginative world blending futuristic elements with old-world ones. Take, for example, the RLS Legacy, a rocket-propelled galleon. (This blending of styles was used to similar effect in Joss Whedon’s Firefly (2002-2003), a fantasy television series with a western motif.)

While definitely showing strengths in both areas, Treasure Planet does not handle everything to do with characters and narrative perfectly. For example, the progression of the story is at times encumbered by an overreliance on sight gags, and a reluctance to slow down during moments that do not involve Hawkins and Silver. Treasure Planet also appears to fear silence, as evinced by a crewmember that speaks “Flatula” (i.e., in farts) and the loud-mouthed robot B.E.N. (Martin short). Still, the film at least feels complete. Conversely, because Brave weaves, but never fully brings together, various character arcs and narrative strands, the film feels somewhat unfinished. In a way, viewing Brave is akin to watching an early, in-progress reel bound for further reworking.

Brave can be forgiven for mishandling its backstory. In fact, I can forgive a movie a lot, even a generally awkwardly told story or substandard dialogue. Poor visuals, even. I am only able to do this, however, if I am brought to care about the characters and their relationships. For me to care, I must be given the opportunity to eavesdrop, as an audience member, on private moments that reveal to me the inner landscape of each character, or, to keep the metaphor going, the border where two characters’ inner lands meet. But because Brave fails to provide its audience with such moments, I am less inclined to revisit it, despite other aspects of the film mostly meeting my expectations. Treasure Planet, on the other hand, successfully integrates such moments into its narrative. Thus, despite its many problems, the film remains, at the very least, emotionally satisfying. And so, I cut it some slack and willingly revisit it with pleasure.

The first Happy Feet (2006) told the story of Mumble (Elijah Wood), an Emperor penguin who, because of in vitro trauma, could not sing like the rest of his kind. He could, however, dance like a pro, an ability that—initially at least—invited only contempt from his colony. When the Penguin Nation’s food supply finds itself threatened by industrial overfishing, Mumble, thanks to his unusual gift, is able to attract the attention of the human world, which eventually comes to the penguins’ rescue. In Happy Feet Two, another environmental catastrophe, this time prompted by global warming, assails Mumble’s people: a mobile iceberg has trapped the penguins inside their mating grounds. It is up to Mumble, off retrieving his wandering son Erik (Ava Acres) when disaster struck, to help them escape. Erik, it should be mentioned, cannot dance. While all of Emperor Land has, since the original film’s events, taken a liking to dancing, the young chick confesses he does not know why to dance, that he has no reason to. Along with Erik, we learn by the end of the story that while solo dancing to one’s personal tune may definitely have value, dancing together to the tune of the public good can sometimes be just as satisfying…

In Happy Feet and Happy Feet Two, director George Miller has created something undeniably unique: a two-part animated jukebox musical featuring Antarctica as a principle location, photorealistic penguins who sing and dance to everything from Stevie Wonder’s Tell Me Something Good to Giacomo Puccini’s E lucevan le stelle, live-action humans, and an explicit environmental message. The involvement of “lifelike” characters that are neither fully good nor fully bad is also refreshing. Whether this strange combination of elements comes together is a matter of opinion. I, for one, think it does. But whatever you may think of the Happy Feet recipe, you cannot fault Miller for offering us something totally different that, storytelling polish aside, rivals any title from the Pixar canon. (To wit, Happy Feet beat out Cars, Lasseter, 2006, for the 2007 Best Animated Feature Oscar.)

While Happy Feet brought to light the problem of environmental degradation, Happy Feet Two asks how we can resolve the situation, as symbolized by the Emperor penguins’ confinement. More specifically, the sequel focuses (through a collection of subplots featuring a bevy of characters from various species) on the behaviors that stand in the way of environmental conservation. Some of the behavioral barriers scrutinized in the film are: magical thinking, apathy, false promises and selfishness.

Early in the film, we meet Sven (Hank Azaria), a charismatic Atlantic puffin with thousands of fanatical Adélie penguin followers. He professes that willing can make anything come true: “Will it, and it will be” is his motivational motto. As illustrated by the film’s conclusion, however, saving our planet will not only take good intentions, but also collective effort, concrete and sustained actions in the direction of our intentions. Bryan (Richard Carter), an elephant seal, refuses to move backwards when he bumps into Mumble and Erik on a narrow bridge of ice. Reversing the damage we have inflicted on our planet may, in fact, require us to revert to less indulgent and resource-demanding lifestyles. When Mumble helps save Bryan, whose stubbornness has caused him to fall from the bridge into a precipice, the grateful colossus promises his diminutive rescuer a favor. As soon as Mumble calls upon Bryan to fulfill his promise (by joining an interspecies effort to save his people by causing a section of the aforementioned iceberg to yield), Bryan backs down claiming he is too busy with other matters. Needless to say, empty promises will get us nowhere, and saving our planet will involve some level of sacrifice.

Happy Feet Two relegates the theme of environmental degradation that so permeated the original film’s second act to the background, to focus on our individual attitudes toward environmental change, and the impact our behaviors can have. (Besides the catastrophic event that sets the story into motion, the most we see of global warming’s effects during the film is a brief glimpse of a polar bear teetering in the middle of the ocean on a small chunk of ice as a killer whale approaches in the distance.) This is a sensible choice, conferring a sense of urgency upon the proceedings: if we do not wise up soon, what seems for now to only be happening in the background of our lives—on newspaper headlines and such—will eventually come to bear on us in ways that are inescapably prominent. To avoid this fate, Happy Feet Two suggests we band together: communal solidarity, in service of our planet’s (and ultimately all its inhabitants’) survival, and unencumbered by individuals’ tendencies toward behaviors that slow down or downright halt progress toward this goal, will in the end save the day.

However well intentioned, Happy Feet Two is not without problems. As in the original film, the animation is a mixed bag, being at its weakest when relying on motion capture to convey movement. (To be fair, animated penguins moving like real humans are not nearly as strange and distracting as animated humans moving like real humans; see, for example, The Polar Express, Zemeckis, 2004). That being said, the environments within which the characters interact are gorgeously rendered, making effective use of lighting to give scenes texture. There is not one location in the Happy Feet universe that does not feel like an actual place, as opposed to simply an extraordinarily detailed digital rendition of an actual place. Further, in trying to accomplish its principally didactic purpose, the film’s structure somewhat suffers: the film has an episodic feel to it, focusing on a character facing a particular challenge meant to make us consider the legitimacy of a particular environmental attitude, then on another, and on and on until the conclusion. Thanks to swift editing, however, the pacing remains even, which serves to mitigate the broken up quality. Despite the preceding problems, Happy Feet Two features one of the most satisfying endings to an animated musical. And so, while the sum total of the film may leave you a little disappointed, the rousing, inspirational climax will make sure you step out of your living room with at least a pleasingly warm feeling in your heart.

Now, of the seeming contradiction between the first and second chapters of the Happy Feet saga… A.V. Club reviewer Tasha Robinson (2011) writes in her review of the latter: “[Where] Happy Feet touted the importance of confident individualism, Happy Feet Two laughs that attitude off at every turn in favor of messages about the value of community.” It is true that, at first sight, the first film’s message stands at odds with that of the second. Assuming that individualism and collectivism are not mutually exclusive philosophies, it seems to me the sequel simply builds upon its predecessor’s themes, acknowledging the limits of individualism, however valuable at times, and the potential benefits of collectivism, however detrimental at times. I think what both films together are trying to tell us is that, to be sure, change is more often than not prompted by the individual: that is, the individual may realize that something about the way the collective thinks or behaves is wrong, begin to alert others that change is required, and mobilize others to enact change. But however powerful the individual may be in sparking a movement, movements, by definition, require masses. In other words, only the community, as enticed by the individual, can ultimately give life to and sustain change.

The subplot of Will (Brad Pitt), a krill who has separated from its swarm, nicely ties the two films’ themes together. Will has grown tired of being “one in a krillion.” Because he feels his community has prevented him from fulfilling his true potential, he decides to pave his own path. He escapes his swarm with his nervous friend Bill (Matt Damon), and begins to search the (sea)world for opportunities to be who he is truly meant to be. His independence of spirit is ultimately rewarded when he realizes, thanks to his outside vantage point, that his community is inadvertently destroying itself by going about business as usual. In the end, Will realizes that his true purpose might actually lie within the very confines of the community that initially constrained his ability to self-fulfill. That is, the most meaningful difference he can make may just be to rejoin his people and contribute to their newfound effort (which he instigated as a rebellious and freethinking individual) to collectively carry on and flourish in less self-destructive ways.

Happy Feet Two argues that when individuals assemble into communities that decide to act as one toward a common goal, they should be driven not by irrationality and narrow self-interest, but by Love. Trying to comfort an angry Erik, his mother Gloria (P!nk) sings to him: “Love can build us a bridge of light.” The film even ends with these lyrics from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure: “Love dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night, and love dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves.” As philosopher Bertrand Russell acknowledges in his easily accessible, counter-religious essay What I Believe (1925/1957), Love is indeed a crucial ingredient in the recipe for the Good Life, or a life lived responsibly. Because Love on its own can easily become harmful, however, he recommends it be restrained using Knowledge. Likewise, Knowledge, being neutral, requires direction when applied, direction which Love can appropriately provide. Since Love and Knowledge make such effective bedfellows, I thus recommend adding Knowledge (derived, here, from Environmental Science) to the Love Happy Feet Two wants us to elect as our guide in the quest to save our planet, our fellow animals, and ourselves.

Reference

Bertrand, R. (1957). What I believe. In P. Edwards (Ed.), “Why I am not a Christian” and other essays on religion and related subjects (pp. 48-87). New York, NY: Touchstone. (Original work published 1925)

 

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