Sunday, February 08, 2009

Dance, Mumble!

Parenthood has its drawbacks, like being induced to watching the same movie ad nauseum. Sometimes, though, that can work in your favor since many of the animated children's movies made these days are spectacular and well worth watching repeatedly. Shrek. Kung Fu Panda. Anything by Pixar. Fortunately, as each year passes, animated films only get better and better.

One film stands above the rest—Happy Feet. When this film came out in movie theatres, I hadn't even heard about it despite the deluge of ticketbuyers. When it finally arrived on DVD, we were eventually forced to watch it. Happy Feet has a lot going for it that I hadn't anticipated: action, adventure, romance, stunning scenery, comedy, story... but the shining star at its core is its music, song and dance. Happy Feet is about a tap dancing penguin amidst a community of singing penguins, and thus, it is almost literally a fish out of water story.

Regardless of the dramatic implausibility of musicals, I have a deep fondness for the musicals genre. Man of La Mancha, Guys and Dolls, and 42nd Street are among my favorites, and newer musicals like Rent, Chicago, and Moulin Rouge! are on the list, too. I'm also drawn to anything involving percussion—the broadway show STOMP was riveting. Tap dancing, I realize, is essentially percussive dance.

If you combine my love of musicals and percussion, it's not a stretch to see why I'm already predisposed to like Happy Feet. Even so, it's hard to do a musical and tap dancing well, and Happy Feet simply knocked my socks off. It clearly earned its Oscar for Best Animated Feature in 2006.

Below is what I consider as among the best musical and performances ever. If you can get past the central conceit of penguins dancing and singing (which already happens after seeing the first 10 minutes of the film), then you start to appreciate some incredibly well thought out choreography, singing and musical arrangement. It came as no surprise to me to learn this on wiki:

The animation in Happy Feet invested heavily in motion capture technology, with the dance scenes acted out by human dancers. The tap-dancing for Mumble in particular was provided by Savion Glover who was also co-choreographer for the dance sequences. The dancers went through "Penguin School" to learn how to move like a penguin, and also wore head apparatus to mimic a penguin's beak. Link.

In the clip below, pay special attention to the music's pacing, and the musical and dramatic intensity of each moment within the scene—to create a sharper and more dramatic impact, a long and quiet intimate moment precedes a massive performance with lots of noise. Additionally, the entire film sets up this one scene—Gloria spends the first part of the movie repeatedly singing the opening stanzas to a popular song from the 70s, so her lyrics nag at you the whole time... where have I heard that? So when Gloria finally sings that song (in this scene)—with a full orchestra and a chorus of hundreds behind her—it's the emotional equivalent of feeling a dam burst.

Some dramatic setup: Gloria is the pretty girl courted by every suitor because of her enchanting voice. Mumble, her childhood sweetheart, has been outcast because he's tone deaf and has "bizarre" tap dancing skills. Desperate to win Gloria over, Mumble returns with some new friends to sing Gloria a song she's never heard before... and fails miserably. Equal parts astonishing and comical, what happens next is the best scene film:

I wish someone had forced me at gunpoint to go see Happy Feet when it was in movie theatres.


Dave R. said...

Houston we have a problem. I hated this movie. I'm not opposed to musicals; I loved Chicago, Moulin Rouge, The Sound of Music, etc...

But Happy Feet had uninspired music, the sappiest end story ever written, racial stereotypes, plenty of sexual innuendo, a jumble of half assed plots.

I'd rather watch Shrek for the 100th time than Happy Feet again.

Ross Pruden said...

As a modern medley musical like Moulin Rouge!, I can see how some people would be put off by it—many people I know couldn't stand MR—and to be perfectly honest, Happy Feet was an acquired taste for me. Dancing penguins? Seriously?

Yet, even with my hesitance, I still found myself amazed at Happy Feet on so many levels—especially the astonishing action sequences. After watching a few select scenes over and over again (e.g., the tap dancing youngling) and learned how to appreciate the film for what it is, I started cutting slack about its other potential foibles.

Someone must have named this peculiarity: hating something upon first viewing but developing a fondness for it after subsequent viewings because of a readjustment of one's expectations.

Did you like Babe?

Anonymous said...

>But Happy Feet had uninspired music,

Now, is your problem with the music itself, or the fact that they used pre-established music in general? Because, unlike Shrek, there was an underlying reason for doing so.

Although, offhand I'd also say it was a bit more coherent in its' usage of this device than "Moulin Rouge."

>the sappiest end story ever written,

How's that?

>racial stereotypes,

What were these stereotypes? If you're talking about the use of accents or music, that's kind of ridiculous.

>plenty of sexual innuendo

I believe the film is pretty up front about that, actually.

>a jumble of half assed plots.

And they were?