This past Friday night I went and saw the new movie Happy Feet with my family. I am not a regular movie-goer these days, DVD movies have become my usual way of enjoying films now– I think the only movies I saw this past summer at the theater were “Cars” and “Pirates of the Caribbean II.” Happy Feet is the first film I’ve seen at the theater all fall.
The movie was cute and had some fun characters and engaging musical scenes– but overall it was a disappointment because of something extremely basic: I think it lacked a good storyline. In teaching workshops on digital storytelling from time to time, I emphasize the idea that what makes a good story has really not changed over time as digital technologies have advanced: You need a good STORY. Good characters, a good plot, interesting action that leads to a climax and resolution over time… a good story. Unfortunately, I don’t think the writers of “Happy Feet” knew quite where they wanted to go with the plot of their film. I wonder if the writers had “too many cooks in the kitchen” and the input of multiple people led to this rather disjointed and un-unified final film that is now in theaters?
WARNING: MOVIE SPOILERS AHEAD
The first half of the movie was pretty good, but as soon as the main character, Mumble, (played by the voice of Elijah Wood) started to journey off to find and stop “the aliens” from killing the fish the penguins ate and relied on, I think the storyline got lost. It was likely possible to make a persuasive case against global warming, against overfishing, or another environmental position– but I think the story tried to take several positions and did so in a discontinuous and disjointed way that made the story weak and ultimately disappointing. The writers did get in some digs against formal, institutional religion and religious authority with the Scottish-accent character (Noah the Elder) played by Hugo Weaving. The message there seemed to be against stuck-in-the-mud traditional authority figures, who oppose diversity and divergent thinking in all cases. The story got really lost, however, when the main characters faced the orca whales by the Antarctic human-industrial outpost and Mumble ended up heading out to sea in a Don Quixote style charge against evil. Mumble ends up on a beach (presumably in Australia) and then a zoo, is depressed but discovers that if he dances people love him– then he is magically and inexplicably teleported back to his home on the Antarctic ice with a homing beacon that brings human scientists in a helicopter to his colony who are captivated by the synchronized dancing of the penguin colony. The images they beam back to the rest of humanity set off a debate that eventually results in policy changes which alter fishing activities in the Antarctic and restore the needed fish population.
That’s a quick summary, but my main point is that the story is disjointed and I don’t think it was well thought out. It is amazing that the entire film was computer-animated– of course we have seen a lot of popular films like this lately, Pixar movies as well as the Shrek movie series come to mind most prominently. According to the current WikiPedia entry for “Happy Feet”, this is the first animated feature film produced by Kennedy Miller. I guess we could cut the producer some slack since it’s his first effort like this, but I must say I expected more. I guess Pixar movies have spoiled us: Pixar shows it is possible to tell a compelling story with digitally-created animation and weave plenty of humor throughout the film for all ages to enjoy. Happy Feet is certainly not up to Pixar standards. It was a fun ride for most of the movie, but ultimately was thematically disjointed and rather disappointing.
It is interesting to see that the movie Happy Feet actually has a MySpace page. It is also set for a release on the IMAX screen, according to its WikiPedia entry. Unfortunately, like a student-created PowerPoint film with a lot of flashy, animated flying bullets and sound effects– I think this film may demonstrate many potential uses of advanced technology but fail to reach its communicative potential because of a basic missing ingredient: High quality content in a compelling storyline.
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