We took our grandson to see «Happy Feet 2» today. As with any cartoon movie made for 3D it hurled the viewer into mile-deep abysses, gaping gulfs and dizzying dioramas, following animals that swooped and plunged through the sky at terrifying speed for tens of thousands of feet, hallucinatory and fearsome feats designed to make your stomach come out your nose.
The movies began titillating the audience just like that more than a century ago, with the first silent movie proper, «The Great Train Robbery», produced by Thomas Edison in 1903:
To the audience’s fear and then delight, there was a scene in which the leader of the outlaws looks directly at the audience and fires his pistol at them. (This scene appeared either at the beginning or at the end of the film, a decision left up to the operator.) [– From: 1903 – The First Silent Movie: «The Great Train Robbery», by Jennifer Rosenberg, at the About.com Guide at http://history1900s.about.com/od/1900s/qt/trainrobbery.htm]
«Happy Feet 2» also has an epic storyline, or rather a dozen entangled epic storylines, full of pathos, emotion, drama, laughter, tears, more pathos, emotion, drama, laughter, tears, and for good measure a few buckets of melodrama. And because it is a movie for kids and their parents it had lots of cute animals. Millions, in the case of the penguins, some cuter than others, and trillions in the case of the schools of krill, some of whom were disturbingly sentient.
My computer’s dictionary gives these variants for the adjective “saccharine”: sentimental, sickly, mawkish, cloying, sugary, sickening, nauseating; informal: mushy, sappy, schmaltzy, weepy, gooey, drippy, cheesy, corny, soppy, cornball.
Are penguins cute? The only time I actually met a penguin face to face was on a deserted winter beach on the South coast of eastern Australia. I was about ten, and felt frightened and anxious. The little fellow had an awfully sharp beak. He looked frightened and angry, and trembled behind a small rock. I held out my hand gently. He bit me on the finger with a savagery I still recall vividly.
But back to the movie. I could tell you the plot line in full, but it would take weeks, and you would only laugh. You can find it here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Happy_Feet_Two
Go ahead: be my guest. Laugh.
The main story involves two “tribes” of penguins: Emperor penguins and Adélie penguins, both of whom dance a lot. It seems dimly to echo «West Side Story», the hit 1957 musical set in New York City that explores the rivalry between the Jets and the Sharks, two teenage street gangs of different ethnic backgrounds. The members of the Hispanic-speaking Sharks from Puerto Rico are taunted by the Jets, a white working-class group. Both groups often take time off from trying to kill each other to dance in beautiful formations to the music of an energetic orchestra playing just off-camera, in what seems an effort to displace their belligerence into some kind of terpsichorean competition ritual.
In the penguin movie the Adélie penguins are the Hispanic speaking gang, so to speak – well, the Engish-speaking gang with strong Hispanic accents and social gestures – and the working-class Sharks are acted by – no, I’m not playing a cruel joke – by large Emperor penguins speaking English with thick New York Afro-American street accents, and the kind of lingo used by rappers.
These hip groovers are voiced by a variety of attractive, rich and popular Hollywood actors and actresses, mostly of Caucasian appearance, as the police reports say.
If you can imagine «Lassie Come Home» played by white “rappers” in blackface and penguin suits you have something like the idea. And perhaps the comparison with that massive money-earner «West Side Story» is unkind. The older musical had two unfair advantages: a brilliant score by Leonard Bernstein, and a vigorous and touching storyline by William Shakespeare, whose «Romeo and Juliet» was borrowed for the occasion. Of course Shakespeare stole his plot from someone else, as he did with all of his smash hits.
The Saga of the Dancing Penguins reportedly cost 130 million dollars. As I crawled out of the theatre I thought of a saying attibuted to Louis B. Mayer, the Godfather of Kitsch, who once said something like “no one ever went broke underestimating the taste of the general public”. Or maybe he said “no one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of his audience,” or maybe it was “no one lost a dime…”
As they say in Antarctica, “Whatever, bro’.”