"Little Things I Loved" from Happy Feet
Part II: Movie details
(or go to Part I)
At the end of Part I, I mentioned there was one detail I didn't see until it was enlarged to Imax size: When Norma Jean was singing the opening song, the tiny mouth, throat, tongue, and other muscle movements needed to make precisely that sound were very visible. Not that this wasn't true to some extent for other singers, but in the close-ups of Norma Jean it was especially noticeable.
Whether emperor penguins have the muscles needed to make those precise sounds is another question, not that we really have to worry about that one. When the movie was in production, some people questioned the wisdom of building a movie around photo-realistic birds, since they "can't smile." Because of this small controversy, it was one thing I consciously watched for - and, y'know, the birds didn't smile or use other human ways to register emotion on their faces (with the possible exception of Mumble, but that's another topic). Somehow, though, their emotions came through perfectly, without any need to sit there deciphering them. I'd have to see the movie again to get a real hold on how this was done, but I know it involved at least eye movements and body posture - things a penguin would have the physical capability of doing, even if the emotions we connect with them are strictly a human construct.
I'd seen Happy Feet once before watching The March of the Penguins for the first time, and then realized that some things I'd thought were artistic license in HF - such as the brightly colored penguin mouths - were completely true to life. I was also more impressed with the reality of the other animals, especially the leopard seal, after I saw the real thing in action in the documentary. And, as another fan observed, seeing what happened to a real egg after only seconds of being lost from its father's warmth made Memphis's fear and guilt about dropping his own egg completely understandable. Watching the documentary also showed that the timeframe in the movie is correct, as far as the mothers and fathers switching off on babysitting and fishing.
I think the best testimonial to the realism of the entire movie was the fact that when live-action humans came on-screen toward the end, they didn't seem out of place. The challenge was probably simplified by the lack of actual physical interaction between penguins and humans (as opposed to, say, CGI Gollum wrapping his arms and legs around live-action Sam), but, even so, the integration was at least as good as it needed to be. The same was true of the animated landscape vs. the real one we see when the helicopter lands. I don't know if the use of computerization to show thousands of penguins tap dancing is as breathtaking as watching the ride of the Rohirrim from above, but it's certainly more fun.
It may have been the chase by the leopard seal that earned the movie its PG rating, but the events I found most frightening - even at a gut level - were connected with the evidence of a human presence. What better icon than a bobbling hula girl to say, "Here there be humans"? Just the thought of that huge piece of construction equipment (I think?) falling into the deeps sends a chill down my spine, and the fishing boat looks as overpowering and ominous on-screen as it would to anyone in the position of the characters. The leg band and six-pack ring are obvious but not as scary. One of the comedy bits I enjoyed was the other birds acting out the abduction story because they'd heard it so many times.
What's not photo-realistic? Well, Mumble, of course. Even baby Mumble has blue eyes, which just ain't penguin. And when he morphs into Mumblijah, the face and facial expressions are undeniably human (I think he even smiles once or twice), because they're so unmistakably Elijah's. Who else could have eyebrow acting without eyebrows? The fact that it's all animated shows how much attention the animators paid to the actor - or else they've been reading the Faculty Lounge thread for the last few years. I'm not sure Mumble makes it all the way to micro-expressions, but he gets pretty close. Mumble's gradual maturation process, as compared with the other penguins, was quite detailed, too.
In defense of real rockhoppers, I also postulate that Lovelace is non-photo-realistic. I've never seen a round rockhopper. Maybe he's so rotund as a result of not needing to find his own food while he's been playing guru. His "wild hair" (as one reviewer called his head feathers) is completely rockhopper realistic, though, as is the beak. It might be obvious that I've loved rockhoppers since long before Lovelace was dreamed up. Alas that Lovelace was too fat to actually hop, which, yes, they really do. On rocks. - One detail I loved in the HF credits was the characters being listed by species, even if we didn't hear the names of all the species during the movie.
Times I almost cried:
- during "Leader of the Pack"
- when Mumble follows the fishing boat past the point of no return
- watching him "nearly lose his mind" as he stupidly catches the fish tossed to him - That the real Mumble could come back to the surface seems pretty hopeless at that point, and the first time I saw the movie I really wasn't sure he would.
- when Mumble throws fish at his hallucinations of his loved ones, trying to feed them
- after the anonymous penguin who greets Mumble at the display has called him "Dave" in a HAL-like voice, then Mumble's hallucination of Gloria also calls him Dave. I can't put an intellectual explanation on why this allusion to 2001 should be moving, but it was.
On Mumble's heart song: As I often have to say in regard to JRRT's writing or EJW's acting, I can't say that this was intended by the writers of the story, but it works for me:
- Mumble's hatching is in response to Gloria tapping on his egg, so it's understandable that the sound and rhythm of it would be tied to happiness and life for him.
- That his dancing is his heart song is shown by him dancing when told to "let it out" - and is confirmed when Gloria is able to "sing to this."
- Truly poignant moment when the little girl taps on the glass. Is it just his joy in dancing that brings Mumble back to life, or is it a (subconscious) response to hearing the same sound that originally awakened him to life inside his egg?
A detail at the end that I didn't notice at my first viewing: When Mumble and Gloria are courting in the water, there's a featherless patch on Mumble's back where the radio transmitter had been. Since it is at the very end of the movie, almost as a lead-in to the credits, I hadn't originally been sure if it was "real time" or meant to be a flashback to the almost identical earlier scene. That patch places it squarely in the present.
The background on this page is also made from Baby Mumble's iceberg background in the movie trailer found on the March of the Penguins DVD.