“It’s supposed to be cute, I don’t do cute,” my partner for life (which, come to think of it, is how penguins pair off too: must be something in the ice water, the hole in the ozone layer …) insisted when I suggested we see Happy Feet, George Miller’s animated follow-up to Babe: Pig in the City, yet another animal-inflected marvel that’s also arguably his masterpiece. But I don’t know from cute, so what else have you got for me? … Well, obviously not the plot/script/scenario that everyone’s apparently agreed to dump on—“noisy incoherence … Miller has tried to make three or four movies at once” (registration required), etc–which to me makes as little sense as dissing Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor for its “ridiculous” libretto (note to the clueless: it’s about singing, not the story). And probably not the black-and-white 30s musical impersonation theme–“all singing, all dancing,” like Flying Down to Rio without the carioca–though you can see where Miller’s headed with this, his aesthetic stripping down: limit the creative options–water, wind, ice, sky, the whole “antarctic desert” thing … plus 20,000 chorus-line tuxedos–the better to open up the screen. But ultimately it’s the technical animation that blows everything else away: now swift and elegant (the underwater chase ballets, shoals of gracefully looping vortices and curlicues verging on pure abstraction), now impossibly delicate and subtle (the fledgling hero’s juvenile molt riffling in the antarctic breeze, like a field of wheatgrass several continents away), now embracing thickness, texture, weight, the illusion of raw dimensionality, of uninflected mass (icebergs calving, rusty trawlers looming in the mist, orcas leaping, elephant seals hulking on the shelf ice … plus a monster leopard seal more menacingly ferocious than any stampeding herd of CGI dinosaurs I’ve ever seen). Or that one utterly hallucinatory sequence toward the end (shades of Lady From Shanghai!) where CGI meets motion capture through the glass of an aquarium viewing tank–transparency versus reflection, which layer of illusion to bang your beak against?
All of which pushes us further along the Faustian “realist” road that we’ve been traveling since the Renaissance, the re-creation of tangible life by virtual/intangible means, our homuncular golems almost within reach … yeah sure, Western art and its discontents, blah-blah-blah. Meanwhile, out on the ice floes, it’s top hats off and kudos to everyone involved … and lots of krill too!