In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
At some point in the early years of the 21st century a bunch of Hollywood executives must have gotten together and decided that animated films should be made for all audiences. The goal was perhaps to make movies that are simultaneously accessible to the older and younger sets with colorful imagery that one expects from children’s films and two levels of humor: one that’s quite literal and harmless and another that’s somewhat subversive. The criteria has resulted in cross-generational hits like Wall-E and Madagascar and though it’s nice to be able to take my nephew to the movies and be as entertained by cartoon characters as he is I can’t help but wonder what happened to unabashedly innocent animated classics like A Goofy Movie and The Land Before Time?
Disney’s Winnie The Pooh is the answer to the Shrek’s and Hoodwinked!’s of the world: a short sweet simple and lighthearted tale of friendship that doesn’t need pop-culture references or snarky dialogue to put a smile on your face. Directors Stephen J. Anderson and Don Hall found some fresh ways to deliver adorable animation while keeping the carefree spirit of A.A. Milne’s source material in tact. Their story isn’t the most original; the first part of the film finds Pooh Piglet Tigger and Owl searching for Eeyore’s tail (a common plot point in the books and past Pooh films) and hits all the predictable notes but the second half mixes things up a bit as the crew searches for a missing Christopher Robin whom they believe has been kidnapped by a forest creature known as the “Backson” (it’s really just the result of the illiterate Owl or is it?).
The beauty of hand-drawn animation all but forgotten until recently is what makes Winnie the Pooh so incredibly magnetic. There’s an inexplicable crispness to the colors and characters that CG just can’t duplicate. It’s a more personal practice for the filmmakers and should provide a refreshing experience for audiences who have become jaded with the pristine presentation of computerized imagery. The film is bookended by brief live-action shots from inside Robin’s room an interesting dynamic that plays up the simplicity of youth ties it to these beloved characters and brings you right back to memories of your own childhood.
With a just-over-an-hour run time Winnie the Pooh is short enough to hold the attention of children but won’t bore the parents who will love the film mainly for nostalgic musings. Still it’s the young’uns who will most enjoy this breezy bright and enchanting film that proves old-school characters can appeal to new moviegoers.
WHAT IT’S ABOUT?
Kicking off the new label DisneyNature Earth represents a return to the kind of filmmaking that won eight Oscars for Walt Disney between 1948 and 1960 under the umbrella name True Life Adventures. This time the focus is on three different animal families as cameras follow their remarkable migrations across the planet — literally — as the film was reportedly shot in 68 countries over seven continents. There’s the polar bear mother trying to protect her cubs from melting ice caps and overbearing sun as the father desperately searches for food; there’s the elephant and her calf trying to keep up with the rest of the herd through a stormy Kalahari Desert in search of water while fending off dangerous nighttime attacks by predatory lion packs; and finally there’s the mother whale and her calf traveling 4 000 miles from the tropics all the way to Antarctica.
WHO’S IN IT?
Beautifully narrated by James Earl Jones Earth avoids the hokey cutesy antics some nature films and television shows succumb to in their scripting. Jones’ distinctive elegant storytelling adds a moving layer to the overwhelmingly powerful images we see on screen. No cute talking animals in this film folks.
New technologies and more sophisticated cameras have energized this kind of filmmaking since the more primitive days when Walt Disney was regularly turning these movies out. Directors Alastair Fothergill and Mark Linfield (Discovery’s Planet Earth) take their cameras into places no one has seen before and get incredible footage some of it heartbreaking some of it thrilling some of it funny. But with brilliant editing and a stunning musical score by George Fenton it all adds up to a breathtaking motion picture achievement adults will enjoy just as much as the kids.
Only that we have to wait another year for the next installment of the series Oceans from the talented filmmakers who gave us the equally amazing Winged Migration.
Just in terms of its haunting effect the richly-detailed sequence in which the slowly-starving father polar bear tries to get food by infiltrating a large pack of crafty walruses is both fascinating to watch and unforgettable in its impact. It’s that unstinting realism and sense that we are watching nature as it really unfolds that gives Earth its gravitas. Another grainy nighttime scene — captured on hidden cameras — shows determined lions out to kill a baby elephant as his mom and her pack try to protect him. Incredible stuff.
INTERESTED IN TRIVIA?
If this seems familiar Earth originally opened in several countries around the world in 2007 and had Patrick Stewart as narrator. Disney eventually picked up the film retooled it and now launches its U.S. premiere on Earth Day. This is the first of six annual films all also intended for release around Earth Day including the aforementioned Oceans.
NETFLIX OR MULTIPLEX?
Although the BBC and the Discovery Channel are partners in this venture this is a MUST on the big screen.