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Sep 12

Happy Feet Two (2011)

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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