Bright Lights Film Journal

One Small Step for a Penguin: George Miller’s <em>Happy Feet</em>

Getting down way down under

You may not be aware of this yet — few Americans are — but Robin Williams likes black people. He also likes Latinos. And why not? Black folks are cool! And Latinos rule! You didn’t know, man, did you? You’re locked up in your Honkie white-ass tight-ass world, and you don’t know! I’m telling you the truth!

You know what your problem is, bro? You eat the wrong kind of food. You’re eating all that Bisquick shit, man, and it’s fucking you up! You need some soul food! Some ham hocks and collard greens, some refried beans, some chilies, man, some red-hot chili peppers, to clean your ass out! Then you gonna feel good! You need to get down, man! You need to sing, to dance, to work your booty!

Yes, watching Happy Feet is a lot like being a penguin chick, feeding on mama’s puke, although in this case it’s not a stew of half-digested squid and mackerel, spiced with avian bile, but the rancid kitsch of sixties Hollywood liberalism, an oily mix of Beatles, Motown, and Beach Boys, with hints of Richie Valens, José Feliciano, and, possibly, Brasil ’66 (and even, possibly, God help us, Pat Boone’s immortal “Speedy Gonzales”).

The “hook” for all this stupendous unoriginality, of course, is those totally cool emperor penguin dudes, who totally rock, and are a total inspiration to us all, because the dads freeze their asses off hatching the damn eggs while the moms are off “fishing” (fishing for compliments on the Riviera is more like it).

This flick has everything except lesbian seagulls. (Apparently, Ellen Degeneres is making too much money off her ads for American Express to give a damn.) There’s plenty of tap dancing, too, (hence the title), but watching animated penguins tap is not quite the same as watching a human do it.

Undeniably, the animation here is amazing, easily the best I’ve ever seen. If I were an actor, I’d be damn worried, because the line between animation and “reality” is almost invisible. The animators do a particularly nice job with a menacing leopard seal, turning him into a sleekly grinning sea monster. Killer whales make an appearance as well, but they’re a little too stiff and cumbersome.

At the end of the pic, human beings show up, and apparently we’re quite rational (which is news to me), because we stop fishing in the Antarctic so that the emperor penguins can catch a break.

Maybe a moratorium on fishing in the Antarctic is a good idea. But has anyone ever tasted penguin? I hear they’re sweeter than seal pups and juicier than a dolphin. I don’t know, man. Maybe it’s the sharks who have the right idea. They’ve been around a long time. They outlasted the fucking dinosaurs, man, you know what I’m saying? I’m just saying, man, nobody fucks with the sharks. Nobody.


According to Einstein’s (right) theory of general relativity, there is, somewhere in the time-space continuum, an “anti-universe” corresponding to ours, where Robin Williams spends all his time pretending to be white, where George Bush always tells the truth, and where Zippy the Pinhead is funny. Somehow, I suspect that it’s even scarier than this one.

There are plenty of other celebrity voices in the flick — Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, etc. — but none of them seem to register. I wouldn’t say Robin hogs the picture, but even when he isn’t talking, you think he is.

Savion Glover did the “original” dancing done by “Mumble” (the tap-dancing penguin). Savion has a number of web sites up, none of which work worth a damn. You can catch his act on YouTube here.

The flick begins and ends with bits from the conclusion of Abbey Road (“Once there was a way …” and “The love you make …). I stopped listening to rock after AR. What could be said had been. Now when I listen to the young bucks working themselves into a “more alt than thou” lather trying to establish rank and precedence among, say, the Yardbirds, Clash, the Sex Pistols, Hüsker Dü, Smashing Pumpkins, and Nirvana, I just sit back, sip my absinthe, and smile.

Which is cuter, penguins, seal pups, or giant pandas? Pandas got the big head, but all they do is eat bamboo. What if a leopard seal pup tried to eat a penguin chick? Talk about your cognitive dissonance!