by Luke Baumgarten & r & & r & Happy Feet & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & D & lt;/span & uring the opening song and dance sequence of Happy Feet, thousands of Emperor penguins sing a medley of club hits that include, but aren't limited to Ricky Martin's "Shake Your Bon Bon," Earth Wind and Fire's "Boogie Wonderland," and G-rated versions of Prince's "Kiss" and Salt 'N' Peppa's "Let's Talk About Sex," I didn't see a single child go gay.
Thank God, because as conservative talk-show hosts Glenn Beck, Gretchen Carlson, Neil Cavuto and Michael Medved have been telling us, the amount of not just gayness but, according to Beck, environmental "propaganda" in this film is staggering. I personally have never believed a single word any of those people have ever said, but they were saying it so shrilly and with such rancor that my interest was piqued. When Medved said the film "may be the darkest, most disturbing feature-length animated film ever offered by a major studio," (four, count 'em, four qualifications) I decided to take that bet.
It's really not that dark, though the filmmakers do make stunning use of anguish and agony, as in the 15 or so minutes when penguin guru Lovelace (Robin Williams) is being slowly suffocated by a plastic six-pack soda holder around his neck. It's no darker, though, than The Lion King was (Medved should have perhaps further qualified it as the most disturbing computer-animated film ever), but then, The Lion King wasn't this critical of establishment norms. In a world where Emperor penguins must sing to mate, and mate to live, little Mambo (derisively called "Mumble") is pretty much screwed. He can't carry a tune in a bucket, but he has another amazing talent. Kid can dance.
Of course, dancing is such a strange thing to the penguins that, not only is Mumble's talent not recognized, but he's openly stigmatized. By and by, as the penguins' fishing stocks dwindle and Mumble tries to assert his tap-dancing "voice," the elders begin to equate the two, suggesting that Mumble's unholy dancing is what has brought the famine. "The Great 'Guin is punishing us," the elders say, mixing establishmentarianism with conservatism and blind piety. Mumble knows otherwise, though, having heard from several other types of birds about strange activities going on far away. Humans (or "the Aliens" as they're adorably referred to) are overfishing the Antarctic. With nowhere to go and a lot to prove -- in addition to genuinely wanting to save his people -- Mumble goes off to try and stop the fishing.
Honestly, before I heard about this brouhaha -- the supposed queerness and eco-consciousness of the film -- I hadn't planned on seeing it. I'm glad I did, because it's good. Smartly written and gorgeously rendered, it's one of the best and most beautiful non-Pixar CG flicks. It's not, however, a specifically gay film, nor is it, as Glenn Beck squawked, "an animated Inconvenient Truth." It's a film about being yourself, like many other recent children's movies, but it takes that a step further, until it resembles real individualism, not simply buying a Nintendo DS when all your friends are buying PSPs.
The reason it's been couched as a gay film and an environmental film by conservatives is that these are hot-button issues among conservatives both religious and fiscal. It's easy to cry "gay" and watch millions boycott the theaters. It's not as easy to cry "anti-establishment" or "individualist" and see the same result. The gayest transgression the film commits, in honesty, is leaving Mumble's orientation ambiguous. He certainly has a female love interest, but he's reluctant to mate because he's too busy trying to save the world. Gay, maybe, but also maybe preoccupied by extinction-level starvation amongst his people. Likewise, there are environmental themes, but humans aren't demonized for their fishing. They come off as ignorant but well-intentioned.
The shrillness of the attack from people like Beck and Medved only serves to underscore the parallels between American punditry and the repressive penguin regime that Mumble fights to gain acceptance in. They aren't interested in facts, only social order. They believe things should stay the same because that's safest for those not being oppressed. They aren't evil per se, just shortsighted and daft. Screenwriters Warren Coleman, John Collee, George Miller and Judy Morris couldn't have written those parallels better themselves.