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Welcome to All Movie Talk! In this audio podcast, Samuel Stoddard and Stephen Keller talk about old and new movies, famous directors, historical film movements, movie trivia, and more.

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Happy, Happy, Happy Feet

It is a rarity that a movie is so joyful. Movies may provoke a wide range of emotions in us. Sorrow is powerful and conspicuous, but it's a comparatively easy one to pull off. Anger is even easier. Joy is hard. Rarely do movies even attempt it and fewer succeed. When I think of joyful movies, Singin' In the Rain is at the top of the list, and it's not by accident that it's a musical. Music can enhance a mood to a beautiful extreme you can't get any other way.

Once upon a time, not so very long ago, animated features were predominantly musicals. Titles like Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King inspired joy with their music that they would not have without it. True, animated musicals eventually fell into a bit of a rut, a formula that was wearing out, and a change was in order. Nonetheless, I do not believe it a coincidence that the disappearance of music from animation in the late 1990s coincided so neatly with their decline in popularity. Comedies like The Emperor's New Groove and Madagascar may be fun, but they don't make a lasting impression.

Happy Feet turns all that around.

With Happy Feet, we get the best of both worlds: an animated feature film that glories, that revels in music, but is not a return to Broadway formula, either. If it is like anything in recent memory, it's Moulin Rouge!, Baz Luhrmann's 2001 musical that anachronistically borrows modern popular tunes and seamlessly integrates them into a fairy tale (albeit a fairy tale on acid) in which sometimes the characters converse in song simply because mere words are not powerful enough. The conceit of Happy Feet is that singing popular music is the central component of the mating ritual of Emperor Penguins, and a penguin named Mumble is born that cannot sing at all. He can tap, though. He can tap dance like no penguin has ever seen. None of the other penguins know what this tap dancing thing is all about, but most of them know enough to disapprove.

With very little imagination, you can probably guess generally where things will go, but you'd probably never guess how. The film surprised me often, even as it frequently happened upon familiar landmarks. But what kept me with the film was not so much where it was going but where it was in the moment. Despite that the story has a clear forward impetus, it seldom feels like it cares so much about reaching its goal as revelling in the moment. It achieves, as I say, such a sense of joy that the third act, in which rather astonishing plot developments occur, is almost a disappointment. The story is resonant, yes, but I would rather have seen more of those penguins singing and dancing and sliding down glaciers.

The visuals are spectacular, although I suspect they will lose a lot of their effectiveness on the small screen. I saw Happy Feet at an IMAX theater, and not far into the movie I was thankful for it. There are such sweeping tracking shots that soar through the antarctic landscape and follow penguins diving for fish and sliding down avalanches, that it practically felt like a 3D movie, even though it's not. This is a movie that, I suspect, will work best when it can envelop you, when the screen can tower over you, when the soundtrack can sing and rumble from all directions.

Clearly I recommend the film, but yet there was one huge disappointment to me that puts me off it. As is the fashion in movies today, Happy Feet employs fundamentalist caricatures for easy villains. The reactions of the other penguins to Mumble's inability to sing tend toward pity, but the elder penguins take it a step further to scorn. The elders are clearly embody judgmental stereotypes of Christian preachers and demand he "repent" and use phrases like "[he] giveth and taketh away." Who giveth and taketh away? Some penguin god that supposedly punishes tap dancing by making the food supply scarce. Of course it's not that that's making the food supply scarce, but the whole idea of penguins having a religion -- or maybe just one that's so silly -- is pretty dumb anyway, but to paint the elders as judgmental zealots and the goodguys reasonable pragmatists is a cheap kind of stereotyping. Hypocritical too, for it would not be tolerated if the penguin elders resembled terrorist Muslims or shrewish Jews.

We get enough of this without it seeping into children's fare. Recently I saw a movie trailer for a movie called Breach. As it began, a character played by Chris Cooper said something about the importance of faith in God. Right away, I pegged him for a villain. Sure enough, moments later the trailer reveals how this character is actually a Soviet spy. (Religious zealots just loved the Soviet Union, you know.) We get characters like this in The Shawshank Redemption and A Few Good Men and so on and so on. If the caricature does not offend you, surely a case can be made that it's boring and overused. I refused to let this ruin my enjoyment of Happy Feet, which is best when it's not engaging the plot anyhow.

I was mostly successful. This is, as I say, a real joy of a film, and one that serves as an eloquent reprimand to the countless animated films released earlier in the year in which wacky animals wisecrack their way through all too familiar slapstick adventures. This is how you do it.

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