Not "Frodo with Feathers"

The Fellowship of the [Six-pack] Ring on their quest.

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Not "Frodo with Feathers"
(...but pretty darn close)

At a press conference just before the release of Happy Feet, one reporter asked Elijah to compare Mumble's story with Frodo's. Elijah's totally appropriate response was, "Oh, here we go..." But, even though every character he plays for the rest of his life will be compared to Frodo, Mumble's a much closer match than, say, Kevin or Patrick, or even a victim like Mikey Carver, and may be the closest so far.

Of Elijah's pre-LotR heroes, I'd pick Casey as the most Frodo-like, but there are aspects of his story that Tolkien wouldn't have written, especially his need (and ability) to fulfill his purpose standing alone. Leo's a distant second, mostly for those "It's gone" Froshadowings at the end of the movie. But he risks his life for Sarah, not for everyone (not that it isn't noble of him). If we knew more about Little Boy, I might call him a hero; but I can't prove that he's taken on the job of watching out for the younger boys, although that's my impression. Post-LotR, pre-HF, The Guy had a chance, but he didn't approach his attempt at world-saving with humility, and we know what happens then... Other characters save a life here or there: Huck, Mark, Nat, Stu, and maybe Luke (depending on how you interpret the ending of Radio Flyer), but that's not quite the same thing. (And even though I try my best to completely forget about Tom, Thumbelina's the real hero of that movie, anyway.)

Probably because of his size, build, and appearance, Elijah's heroes so far have been unlikely ones. (This doesn't have to stay true in the future - there's no reason he couldn't play a hero with the physical abilities of Kevin.) They're heroes who work outside the conventional power structure, which could also have something to say about his choice of roles. Each one is completely individual, in large part thanks to Elijah's acting, yet they seem to have a similarity at the core.

About his characters in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien said, "They all contain some universals, or they would not live at all. But they do not represent them as such." In the same letter, he said, "You can make the Ring into an allegory of our own time, if you like: an allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power. But that is only because all power magical or mechanical does always so work." Are there other things that "always so work" in their own ways, whether those ways be evil or good? Do all human beings contain universals that make them truly alive? Is there something universal at the heart of unlikely heroes - heroes who are heroes not because they want to be, but because there's no one else available to do what has to be done? Do such heroes "always so work"? Those questions can be asked about the ones we know in our primary creation, as well as in secondary creations - and even in fiction that doesn't rise to that level.

It seems that in any discussion of Tolkien's work, "power" has a specific meaning and it's not a good one. He said that within his cosmos if power isn't connected to Eru either directly or through the Valar, it's a "sinister" word. So although Tolkien recognized the existence of "good" power, he doesn't seem to use that word for it: "attempts to defeat evil power by power" are always doomed to failure, so he's not including the power of God, or of love, in that statement. Frodo's casting out of Saruman from Bag End takes spiritual power, as does his earlier waking in the barrow while the other hobbits sleep, but Tolkien doesn't use the word in that sense.

Like the halflings who "arise from their quiet fields to shake the towers and counsels of the Great," Elijah's other heroes come from outside the traditional ranks of the powerful in their own corners of the world. Leo's story would have been completely different if he'd been too cool to join the astronomy club. As I've said in my comments on the scene, if Casey had been a star athlete he'd have been unlikely to know how to close the bleachers in the gym (and he would have been called to the principal's office with the more influential students to be assimilated immediately, instead of being the last man standing). Although HF uses the dropped egg as a possible explanation for Mumble being different, Elijah didn't seem to find that necessary. In at least one interview, he "sided" with Mumble's statement that there's nothing wrong with him, so there's no need for a prenatal injury to explain anything.  

Mumble takes the "outsider" role a step further than even Frodo, in that he's the first of Elijah's heroes (so far as I can remember) who's not only outside the recognized power structure but actually in conflict with it. We might have had a similar situation if Frodo had been thrown out of the Shire for being "cracked," but hobbits were evidently too civilized for that. It's a weird coincidence that in their respective movies both Mumble and Frodo (more explicitly in the extended edition of LotR-FotR) are sent off by a representative of the power structure played by Hugo Weaving, but Elrond sends Frodo on his quest in an entirely different way than Noah does Mumble.

It's on that quest that Mumble most closely resembles Frodo in ways that Elijah's previous heroes don't. His quest has to cover some physical geography, even though he "does not know the way." He sets off specifically to save the society that he knows. He doesn't go alone (although Mumble has no Sam-equivalent, and does undertake the final part of the quest alone), and there's even something of an echo of the Fellowship in the fact that the little group contains three separate species of penguins and, coincidentally or not, that they're all male. In fact, Mumble sending Gloria home seems to me to be a particularly Frodo-resonant moment, with Mumble knowingly sacrificing the life he could have had; it flies in the face of natural instinct, as shown by the fact that the Amigos don't understand what he's doing.

There's also a similarity to Frodo in that it's the quest itself that has to be conquered, rather than a visible, physically-present enemy. If you want to be somewhat facetious, you could say that Mumble is also trying to get rid of a ring, in his case the six-pack ring around Lovelace's neck; but, although he's concerned about Lovelace, Mumble hopes that finding the aliens will not only take care of that problem but also save his people. The one overriding aspect of Mumble's quest that brings him closest to being "Frodo with feathers," IMHO, is that he goes not only "farther than any of us had gone before," but actually beyond any hope of return. Like Frodo's desire to save the Shire "even if my own feet can never stand there again," Mumble hopes to find the aliens and convince them to restore the food supply for his people, even if he can never get home. Like Frodo, Mumble lets go of hope for himself in the very act of holding onto the hope of a greater good. [There's an essay on this regarding Frodo in the site archives.]

Happy Feet fits Tolkien's definition of a fairy-story, while LotR does not, because of HF's clearly happy ending. Mumble doesn't end up paying the price that Frodo does of never really being able to return home, although he certainly accepts the risk of that happening. Mumble's fate is closer to Sam's "Well, I'm back," than it is to Frodo's "...but not for me." In Mumble's final underwater dance with Gloria, I had to see the featherless patch on his back caused by the radio transmitter to be sure that we weren't just seeing a flashback to the very similar scene much earlier in the movie. But, at least as I see it, that means Mumble's life goes in a circle while Frodo's continues on an upward trajectory beyond the last page of the book.

In one of those instances where Elijah seemed to "get" Frodo better than the screenwriters did, he said that not only did the other hobbits profit from their experiences, but "You might even say Frodo was better off..." As many of us did in the pre-Silmarillion/pre-Letters days, both Elijah and the screenwriters saw Frodo's departure from Middle-earth as a metaphor for death, but only Elijah compared it to "going to heaven." He gives us a glimpse of Frodo's "being better off" at the end of LotR-RotK that we don't get in the book, through the transformation of Frodo's facial expression from the flat affect of depression to curiosity to wonder and, finally, to happiness, as he approaches and steps onto the ship. For those who pay attention to microexpressions, he then moves from "acted" happiness to a real, not-consciously-controlled smile as those little muscles around his eyes get involved. Like Elijah, who didn't even remember doing it, I don't know quite what to make of that farewell nod, but it certainly doesn't look sad.

Because of that transformation, the movie doesn't demand as much "hope without assurance" from us regarding Frodo's fate as the book does (especially if you read, as I do, the final description of the "far green country" as Sam's writing). In the book, we're left hoping for Frodo's future healing without witnessing the beginning of it. But even in the movie, Frodo's fate demands more hope from us than does Mumble's fairy-story ending. Many people, including myself, have said that the ending of Happy Feet seems contrived in a way that the ending of LotR - either book or movie - doesn't. The storyline of HF has to make some backflips to give Mumble a happy ending. Frodo's story, however, carries the truth contained in the "universals" of the character, and strikes us as a telling of how life "does always so work."

Copyright 2007 by Trudy G. Shaw
Permission to publish this essay elsewhere on the Internet is granted, provided that this copyright notice and an active link to this site are included.

Links to reviews of Elijah Wood movies referred to in the essay (links to purchase the available movies are on the review pages):
Tolkien books referred to in the essay:

The Witness (Little Boy)

The War (Stu)

The Ice Storm (Mikey Carver)

The Faculty (Casey)

Spy Kids 3D (The Guy)

Sin City (Kevin)

The Lord of the Rings
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
The Tolkien Reader (for "On Fairy-Stories")
The Silmarillion

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