Friday, January 05, 2007

Happy Feet: message good, execution bad.

OK, I didn't like Happy Feet. However, my reasons for not liking it have nothing to do with politics, with whether or not I believe that the oceans are being overfished, (they are) whether there is such a thing as Global Warming or not, (there is) and whether or not I think we humans have done a crummy job caring for the planet. (we have.)

My beef with Happy Feet is very, very basic. It speaks to what animation is, what live action is, what the Uncanny Valley I raved on and on about in the Ashcan Podcast is, and why this animated movie is a total and complete botch.

It has to do with the ability to make characters ACT. There was NO ACTING in this movie. These flightless birds (who nonetheless can fly under water) can bop around, can sing, can be manipulated like marionettes, but they have no capacity to ACT. It's all in their design. The eyes are too small to register emotion. The beak is an immobile piece of leather. There is no real way to connect with any of the penguins other than Mumbles, Our Intrepid Hero, because they all look too much like Emperor Penguins which are all quite eerily uniform. Aside from a few variations, the characters all look alike according to their species. The Argentine penguins who all speak broken Spanglish look alike. Lovelace the Macaroni Penguin looks like a Macaroni Penguin who had an unfortunate encounter with a plastic 6-pack caddy. And none of these species have the facial structure to convey emotions.

The ultra-realism prevented acting, and it also made every single creature in this movie, be it penguin, seal, orca or human, fall right into that Uncanny Valley where they all look like puppetry with taxidermy. Folks, wake up and smell the creepy. This movie had the same "brrr" factor that Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, the Animatrix short Last Flight Of The Osiris, and the movie The Polar Express had. And by "brrr" I'm not just talking the icy landscape so beautifully rendered here. Puppetry with taxidermy, people. Zombie flightless fowl.

The movie might have had more success if its main characters visually resembled March Of The Penguins less and resembled more cartoony penguins like the Linux mascot Tux more. Think about it. Tux has big eyes, the better to convey emotions with. Tux has very short but human-like legs, the better to convey Savion Glover's dancing with. He's stylized and cartoony. Think Tux. Think Opus. Think Daffy Duck.

It is a crying shame to imprison the vocal acting performance of Robin Williams in a prison of feathers and photo-realism. Think about his Genie from Aladdin. You see Robin Williams' actual facial expressions and gestures in the animation job done on the Genie. You don't see that here, and it is a crime.

The other missing element, something missing from every CGI movie I've seen this year except for Flushed Away, is STORY. I can't believe it, but even PIXAR forgot the absolute critical importance of STORY and STORYTELLING this time around. With Flushed Away, you get the idea that the blokes at Aardman had a definite plan for what this story would be about, a plan for how the characters interacted, and what would make you care about them. Every other CGI animated movie I've seen this year, this one included, is a series of set pieces in search of a story.

I always use the example of Antz and by comparison A Bug's Life to illustrate what I mean by this. Antz strikes me as having been whipped up as a pitch. You have the artists' renderings of THE BIG SCENES, and some guy doing a bad impersonation of Woody Allen kvetching his way through life to hold those BIG SCENES together. A Bug's Life, on the other hand, has great characters, a gripping story, and a lot of heart. Did you see that in Cars? No. You saw a remake of several "Sophisticate gets stranded in the sticks and learns Life Lessons" movies holding together a few grand set pieces.

Basically Happy Feet wanted to be a little bit Footloose while telling that same old tired "Hero's Journey" story we've been forcefed ever since Star Wars (Episode IV) hit the cinematic world like a blast from the Death Star.

And yeah, this is a good soundtrack. But what they do with it is just horrible. The best Pixar movies have shown that animated features do NOT have to be musical comedies to be successful. Suffice it to say that pop tunes are used in an even WORSE way than they were in Madagascar and leave it at that. Call this movie "Antarctic Idol" if you must.

In the upcoming "LA Special Edition" of the Cartoon Geeks podcast (I've given up on numbers) I made one huge mistake. I made a false mouse move and lost Tom Reed's whole take on seeing Happy Feet. He liked it. Maybe he was in a better mood than I was. It's funny, he had that whole "Russian Judge" persona on this one message board but I really think I'm the real "Russian Judge" because I am so hard to please. Maybe I'm too picky. Maybe, maybe, maybe.

However, I just couldn't get behind Happy Feet. I wanted to just as much as he wanted to. I think Michael Medved, one of the film's critics, should have stuck to giving out Golden Turkeys and resisted being seduced by the Social Conservative Cabal. I think that the rest of the people who have criticized Happy Feet for its political/environmental message are similarly contemptible. However, I will not climb onto a film's bandwagon just because I like its political stance.

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