Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Happy Feet: The Expansion of Moral and Spiritual Point-of-View

George Miller’s 2006 computer-animated Happy Feet uses classical Hollywood editing conventions adapted to the animation “camera,” along with a realistic approach to a computer-animated world integrated with live-action footage to establish a specific and limited perspective—and, in the film’s last act, create a significant split in the viewer’s emotional identification that is vital to the film’s moral and spiritual significance. This very deliberate and artful manipulation of the spectator’s response transforms an ending misunderstood by many of Happy Feet’s critics as overtly didactic and politically heavy-handed into a far more universal (and far more mystic) moral statement, echoed in the Abbey Road musical quotation that bookends this very musical film: “And, in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” This use of traditional cinematic codes of camera placement, movement, and editing to orient the audience’s sympathies and create emotional identification, only to overturn these established attitudes in the film’s final sequences, explodes, enhances, and broadens the thematic ties between romantic love, communal love, and love for the individual beyond even the global level, suggesting another realm of higher beings beyond the visible expanse of space.


Happy Feet follows Mumble, a tone-deaf misfit (he was dropped as an egg) in a community of emperor penguins in which the only way to win a mate is by singing for them the “heartsong.” Though he can’t carry a tune in a bucket, Mumble is born with an incredible ability to express himself by tap dancing. Mumble’s gift, however, is frowned upon by his peers, his teachers, and especially by the village elders, the community’s religious and governmental leaders, who even at one point accuse Mumble’s inability to measure up to social expectations of having brought a fish famine on their community.

The film establishes the complex world of the penguins in its first act—the penguins’ religion, hierarchy, social customs, and beliefs about family are observed with an almost anthropological attention to detail—but, with its opening shots, Happy Feet also significantly orients that fictional world within the grand expanse of the cosmos. The film begins with the image of a nebula, which briefly takes on the countenance of a mother penguin and her young, before hurtling us through space and through Earth’s atmosphere into the penguin’s community. The rest of the film reverses these opening moments, taking us instead from the micro to the macro, building from the individual’s story into the story of a planet—even the entire universe.

In Nick Browne’s essay, “The Spectator-in-the-Text: The Rhetoric of Stagecoach,” Browne examines the means by which director John Ford creates in the audience emotional identification with a specific character or characters in a given shot, scene, or film, by allowing us, through the camera, to quite literally see through their eyes. The camera orients the characters within the space (through some form of a master shot), and then proceeds to orient us emotionally by shooting from a given character’s geographically established point-of-view; the result of this spatial identification is a parallel emotional identification.

Miller uses a subjective camera—kinetic, constantly swooping, darting, and moving—shot frequently from Mumble’s perspective, and intercuts this viewpoint with occasional wide shots (the only entirely static, “objective” shots in the entire film), in which Mumble and the other characters are contextualized within a much larger and more impersonal reality. There is a physical beauty and reality in the animation that makes these moments particularly breathtaking—almost as real as a big-screen nature documentary. In one such shot, Mumble and his friends journey across the static frame, left to right, battling the fiercely cold wind and snow, the setting sun casting harsh, glorious light across the barren ice; it’s an image of classical, elemental struggle and practically tangible severity.


Later, as Mumble leaps off the cliff into the water to go in search of the “aliens,” we follow him through the subjective camera (plummeting down along with him, as he squints his eyes against the whipping wind); after this, Miller cuts to the expansive view, and Mumble becomes a tiny dot moving through space—highlighting both the sheer size of the white cliff from which he jumped, as well as his own existence as a tiny (but distinctive) speck in a huge world.

The use of a subjective camera centering on Mumble’s experience is integral not only to the way in which the story is told and its immediate emotional impact, but also to the means through which meaning is communicated, once again, expanding from the micro to the macro. Once the world of the penguins has been established (and Mumble’s place in it), we get our (and Mumble’s) first encounter with the Other—the attack of the skua birds, revealed, once again, in a camera move that provides for us as an audience the equivalent of Mumble’s revelation within the scene: he falls over, and the camera moves away from Mumble until two enormous bird legs frame the shot, so that we recognize them the very same instant as Mumble, and, just as Mumble is trapped physically, so we as viewers are trapped visually.


The move is significant in that it provides us with the emotional equivalent to (and subsequent connection with) the protagonist, but it is also the first of several such “alien” encounters throughout the film, in which the world up to that point is broadened and contextualized by the sudden intrusion of something larger and as yet unknown. Significantly, it is during this scene (the first time we see a living thing that is not an emperor penguin), that we also get the first indirect reference to humans (another “alien”—literally, as the skua bird relates the story of an abduction by aliens that we, as an audience, recognize to be humans).

The film’s narrative can be divided into these moments in which Mumble comes in contact with a new and unknown species, each apparently bigger and more powerful than the last. The second of these is a tiger seal, which first makes its presence known by rocking the tiny block of ice on which Mumble sits, then appears as an indistinct shadow under the water, and finally emerges from the water to reveal itself in what quickly turns into a fast and frightening chase (if one wants to see Miller’s use of the subjective camera, look no further than this chase scene—the camera swoops down hills and through snow and ice). And, as soon as Mumble has escaped, the tiger seal (at first seemingly indestructible in its massive size and strength) is also contextualized (the macro made micro), as he becomes comically immobile and powerless on dry land. The conclusion of the chase also leads to the next introduction of a new species: the Adelie penguins, another, smaller species of penguin with other customs and beliefs (and even Hispanic accents to anthropomorphize their racial difference from and relation to the emperor penguins). Again, Miller’s camera moves with Mumble, crossing the threshold of a snowy hill at the same moment he does to reveal thousands of other penguins like his new friends.

This process of anthropomorphization (and, by contrast, photorealistic depiction) is also important in how Happy Feet operates to create meaning—the thematic, emotional, and intellectual movement and development of the story inform even the most basic visual design. The penguins in Happy Feet exist in a world between the photographic realism of The March of the Penguins and the conventional, cartoonized computer-animation of a Disney or Pixar film. These penguins are unique, with slightly exaggerated human qualities, but they never become cartoons—Miller originally conceived of the film as a technical hybrid between live-action and special effects, using animated mouths and faces on live-action animals (as in the two Babe films), and, although the majority of Happy Feet is computer-animated, he’s really using different techniques to achieve essentially similar ends. The animals in Happy Feet exist as the expected, animated-anthropomorphized audience surrogates, but also as actual penguins—the females are curvy, but in a penguin way, rather than a human way, and they all eat their fish, blood, skeleton, and all. It is this sense of reality (and our contextualization in the mystery and vastness of the heavens) that anchors the film and gives it a sense of gravity—and turns a group of recently-graduated penguins singing Queen’s “Somebody to Love” to the school-dance-like Northern Lights not just a moment of imaginative cinematic bliss, but also a genuine plea to the heavens, yet another instance of the linkage between romantic and cosmic love established in the film’s opening image, and that will be integral until Happy Feet’s last frame.


Unlike Pixar’s Wall-E, when the humans appear in Happy Feet, they are not cartoons; Miller and his team seamlessly blend the realistically rendered world of the animals with the live-action human world. As Mumble lies washed ashore after attempting to make contact with the “aliens,” darkness absorbs the screen and the film fades to black. Then, we see Mumble emerge from the dark as he enters the shimmering white light of the zoo. “You’re in heaven, Dave. Penguin heaven,” he is told. Mumble explores his new surroundings, and we explore with him—until he realizes, painfully, that the distant, snowy horizon is really just a mural painted on a wall. He dives into the water, and there he sees, faintly (and through a glass darkly), two human faces gazing back at him. As Mumble screams out in the depth of his despair—the cry falls on deaf ears, as the zoo patrons continue to walk about, play their Game Boys, and so on—the camera again moves away, and the cry echoes throughout the earth, and throughout the cosmos. The opening image of the film is mirrored, and, in a way, the film has come full circle, enveloping us in the penguins’ world only to remind us again of the external reality in which this constructed, fictional world exists. We’ve been drawn into Mumble’s experience by the limited parameters of the story and camera and lulled into the emotional immersion that we have come to expect from narrative film—and then, with the introduction of the live-action human form, our sympathies are split. Our investment in Mumble and his journey remains, but our universal, instinctual identification with the photographic human form (“the transcendent subject,” as film theorist Bela Balazs has called the human face) creates an opposition in our emotional identification; we are now, as viewers, Mumble trapped in a cell, and we are also the unlistening men and women going about their business on the other side of the glass. From this point on, we are responsible.

The use of the term “alien” is also significant in the development of the film’s moral order. Once again, the audience’s identification is split, this time verbally rather than visually—as viewers, we see the “aliens” through the eyes of the penguins (and skua birds), even as we easily identify them (based on the bird’s description) as humans. An early cut of Happy Feet actually included another storyline involving an alien race which resembled penguins (perhaps this will figure into the sequel, which is on its way); though the space aliens make no appearance in the film, their presence is still keenly felt. Through Mumble and the world of the penguins, we feel the presence of a being higher and more powerful than ourselves (the humans), on which we must depend for survival—and, through the introduction of the on-screen humans, this feeling is both transferred and transformed. We are imbued with a recognition of our responsibility to the earth, even as we become aware of our own dependence on higher forces for existence. Thus, Happy Feet becomes more than an excellent expansion on a traditional family film structure (the outsider who proves himself to the community); it is a spiritual meditation on our moral responsibilities to one another, and on our relationship to God—or even, as Happy Feet seems subtly to suggest, a world of unknown gods and goddesses, existing somewhere in physical space, but beyond the visibility of the eye.

The last sequence of the film makes the final move from the penguins’ world into the world of the humans. Mumble has been released back into his community, a tracking device attached to his back. He tells his story, is reunited with his family, and finally wins the support of his community, when they realize that it is Mumble’s dancing, rather than the shifting dogma of the superstitious elders, that will ultimately save them. The elders are obvious Pharisees, and in many ways Mumble acts as Christ—experiencing a sacrificial spiritual death in his time at the zoo, a “resurrection” of sorts through his return, and ultimately acting as the intermediary between the penguin world and the humans; dancing is the redemption of the community (which, at the mercy of the humans, becomes as an entity an outsider itself, like Mumble)—the message of universal love is spread as the community becomes united, and Mumble and Gloria are united romantically, fusing the individual, the community, the family unit, and a dependence on and reverence to higher powers. This sequence, too, begins from the point-of-view of the penguins, as Mumble returns; then, with the entrance of the live-action helicopter, our viewpoint shifts. We see the penguins’ perspective, looking up at the four powerful pilots standing like ominous pilgrims (or aliens, or gods) on the mountaintop; then, we cut to the pilots’ perspective, looking down upon the throng of birds, and all is silent. And then: dancing. We gaze on the sea of tap-dancing penguins with the wonder and the panoramic position of the pilots; now the penguins are the Other—foreign, but beautiful, and even awe-inspiring in their mystery. The camera moves away yet again, turning the pilot’s vision of the dancing penguins into the digital image of a TV screen, as people elsewhere in the world see the same thing, and the viewer is also metacinematically made aware of his or her own position as a spectator. These viewers, however, are not only witnesses, they are imbued with a capacity for action—the film ends with the controversial montage, as people around the world discuss the phenomenon, argue, attempt to pass bills, and so on. But this is not simple-minded political propaganda, and Happy Feet is not only a call to resettle Earth’s environmental imbalance—as we have seen, through the split in human-penguin identification, it is also a much broader plea to restore balance in the universe in every way. This is not just a film about penguins—because we identify with Mumble, it is also a film about us, about every minority and every outsider, and, in depicting both points-of-view (the dance from the penguins’ perspective, the dance from the humans’ perspective), the film suggests that it is in making this connection, in finding a common ground, acknowledging, embracing, and seeking to understand the Other that we are able to save them—and be saved. Like the humans in Happy Feet, we all have a responsibility to reach out and save the many beautiful, vulnerable lives around us. And, like the penguins, we are all at the mercy of higher powers—we are at the mercy of gods, and we are at the mercy of each other. There is salvation, but only after all we can do, both for ourselves and especially for one another.

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