(Movie - 2006) Happy Feet directed by: George Miller
(Reaction) Penguins, Tap Dance, and Close Encounters by: Francis Gabriel Concepcion
Science fiction is characterized by several elements, among them the discussion of the existence and nature of aliens, and its function as commentary for social and cultural issues. These characteristics, when looked at closely, are present in the 2006 musical family film Happy Feet. My task, then, for this reaction, is to argue just how exactly can Happy Feet be considered a science fiction fable.
In 1977, Steven Spielberg’ Close Encounters of the Third Kind captured the imagination of movie-goers in a whole new way. It envisioned the earth being visited by benevolent alien life. It was big a step away from the often-used hostile alien invasion that dominated science fiction stories before it.
Spielberg changed all that through his envisioning of what the experience of first contact might really be like, and as we see in the climax of the movie: humans and aliens appeal to one another’s better nature by communicating through music and hand gestures, an idea that caught on during its time.
Warren Coleman’s Happy Feet, on the other hand, is a tale about penguins that find their soul mates through song. It specifically explores the journey of one particular penguin, Mumble, who cannot sing, but can tap dance fiercely and passionately like no other penguin. Its skeleton, though, directs its focus on exploring the environmental issues of our period, particularly how man has invaded into animal habitats and thus endangered their current lifestyle.
Though Happy Feet is by no means a science fiction movie, it clearly communicates with the genre in certain aspects, and even directly makes use of the
aliens reference in talking about its environmental message. Here, the aliens are the humans with their machines and their interference with nature’s cycle.
The penguins are undergoing a scarcity in terms of food, and Mumble believes it is his job to find out and change all that. It’s his way of trying to prove himself to his colony. Mumble thus tries to prove that it was not he that has laid a curse on their food shortage with his dancing, but it’s the work of aliens. In a sense, this quest is his hero’s journey.
The first alien encounter seen in the movie is when we find young Mumble dancing alone, outside the safety of his colony. Here, he tries to escape the discrimination against his tap dancing. It’s the only place where he can be himself. His creative and emotional release, however, is suddenly interrupted by a small group of birds looking to make him their next meal. In order to buy himself some time, Mumble asks the lead bird,
What’s that on your leg? This then propels the bird to talk about his alien abduction.
There is something out there—creatures. Not like us… the bird begins his tale, sounding very much like how we would sound whenever we begin to talk about alien life. The lead bird also gets the same ridicule from his peers as any human would receive from his if ever he claimed to be abducted by aliens.
They probe me. They tie me up. They strap me down. They take this pointy thing and they stick it into me. And then, black out. The bird’s tale relates the exact same experience an alien abductee encounters, where there is left behind a kind of tracking device to know just where to find the abductee in case they ever needed to conduct another study.
Mumble’s next clue to the existence of aliens happens after he meets Ramon and his amigos. They slide down a slope and cause an avalanche. This, then, reveals a construction rig that was hidden within the glacier. The rig crashes into the ocean and submerges into its depths—another part of this universe that man has yet to explore thoroughly.
The shot used in this scene seems very familiar in science fiction films. This is to be Mumble’s first
UFO sighting, and true enough, the shot takes the angle of Mumble swimming beneath the rigging as it descends upon him.
After it passes by Mumble and his amigos, there is another shot of the rigging as it sinks, one where there’s a beam of light coming from the crack in the ice on the surface of the ocean. The icebergs surrounding it resemble the ominous clouds that gather whenever aliens invade. Symbolically, the rigging has just shot through the clouds and is now descending onto earth’s unsuspecting citizens.
The UFO sighting peaks Mumble’s curiosity that Ramon suggests that he talk to Lovelace about his questions. When they arrive at Lovelace’s abode, Lovelace is seen with a six pack soda ring wrapped around his neck. This probes Mumble to ask Lovelace if he was ever abducted by aliens. Lovelace responds, however, that his
sacred talisman was bestowed upon him by mystic beings, taking advantage of his peers’ ignorance in order to give himself a position of fame and power—something often attributed to advocates of UFOlogy that sensationalize the media and the evidence in order to incite a sense of fear and wonder in their fans and audience, and encourage them to buy their books and DVDs and other products that relate evidence of extra-terrestrial life.
When Mumble returns to his flock, he finally finds a semblance of acceptance. The youth take to Mumble’s “hippitty-hopping” manner and produce one of the biggest dance numbers in the film. This isn’t received well by the religious elders, however, and they accuse Mumble’s “sinfulness” of being the reason for the scarcity of food. In the end, they banish him and Mumble resolves to actually make an effort to find out what’s happening to the fish.
Here, we see another commentary on cultural issues, particularly that of religion being a boon on scientific progress. Where Mumble shows the curiosity and inquisitiveness of a scientist, his religious peers and elders are stuck with trying to explain things through the activities of their god,
The Great Wind.
Later on, when Mumble returns to Lovelace, he finds the penguin being choked by his sacred talisman. He asks Lovelace to lead him to where he found the soda ring and they immediately start on their journey to find out more about these aliens that are messing with their food chain, as well as their habitat.
When they get there, they meet a mothership or as the elephant seals called it, the
annihilator. Here, more worms-eye-view shots are seen, giving one that sense of awe often met when coming face to face with actual flying motherships. The group of penguins then climbs to the top of a glacier and spots more ships a distance away.
They gonna rule the world, one of the amigos exclaims, as alien invasions often serve that very purpose.
Then there’s the scene where Mumble dives off the edge of the glacier and into the ocean. In a way, this scene is also symbolic. It’s Mumble’s
flight. He’s suddenly become the lone pilot off to kill the invading army. The glacier is so high that the movie takes a moment to reflect on Mumble’s sacrifice as he descends. The scene is shot in such a way that it looks like he may be ascending instead. In fact one of the amigos shouts,
…the first ever flying flipper bird!
Mumble then chases after the ships to no avail. He is unable to infiltrate the motherships all by himself. This does not deter him, though, and he travels to the ends of Antarctica and onto the shores of human civilization.
When Mumble finds himself inside an aquatic zoo, he’s met with the problem of communication, a problem that harks back to Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters. How would man communicate with alien? Is there a universal language that both could possibly understand?
After three months trapped within the confines of his cell, Mumble nearly loses his mind and conjures up an imaginary conversation with his family.
Here, the allegory could not be clearer, as we are suddenly shown an overhead shot of the zoo where Mumble’s trapped in. The shot then zooms further out into a complete shot of the earth, and then even further out until the earth is nothing but a blue dot amidst the ever-expansive universe. What the shots do for the audience is give them a sense of Mumble’s loneliness in relation to the huge amount of space in the universe. In a way it asks that very question of, Are we alone in the universe?
The next scene, then, makes a possible allusion to Close Encounters. Here we find a young girl tapping on the glass to get Mumble’s attention. Mumble eventually responds with a little tapping of his own—using his feet. As in the climax of Close Encounters, beats and beeps are used by the scientists to communicate with the mothership, and the mothership responds in beats of its own.
Finally, just as the mothership in Close Encounters brought back humans that were lost in time, Mumble’s aliens also eventually bring back the fish.
All in all, though it may not directly seem like a science fiction film, there are several aspects that make it out as one. It’s the time-old story of how the indigenous tribe is met with a more technologically advanced civilization.
Ironically, the last scene of the penguins dancing to the whim of their human audience can be related to how tribal dances and celebrations performed long ago are done to appease the gods and ask for their blessing during seasons of planting and harvest. As it is, when a less advanced civilization meets one that is tremendously advanced from theirs, they are left at the whim of this force—just as humans are virtually powerless against the might and power than an alien race that seeks to invade earth, and just as how tribal nations all over the world were overrun by European conquerors centuries ago.
This movie had a lot of things going for it when it came out: dancing penguins, genius medleys and mixes, and a riveting story. While simplistic in its make-up, it’s an incredibly enjoyable movie for all it’s worth. Its center talked about some important social issues with regards to the environment, and its direction did it in such a way that the youngest of children would understand the implications involved. Overall, it was and is an important movie to show your kids if ever you want to teach them about taking care of the environment.