The following is an installment in an ongoing series of blog posts analyzing contemporary family films that the author has previously resisted seeing. This series is a sequel of sorts to a previous series called Finding Pixar: A Skeptics Journey, which applied the same treatment to the films of the Pixar Animation Studio.
I can’t help but wonder if the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences realized that they introduced a category for animated features just in time for a sort of golden age in the form. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to guess why it took so long for them to introduce the category in the first place: up until very recently it was kind of a foregone conclusion that Disney would just win every year. Yeah, maybe Don Bluth or someone might have walked away with the award every once in a blue moon, but Disney’s dominance in the field was pretty much uncontested for decades. Hell, even with this renaissance of diverse animation voices the award has still been won by Disney, Disney subsidiaries, or foreign movies distributed by Disney in ten of the fourteen years that the award has existed. Still, it’s a fairly fascinating category in many ways and in recent years it’s actually been producing one of the most diverse and adventurous nominee classes of any Oscar category.
That wasn’t always the case of course. The very first year the award was given out proved to be somewhat indicative of their M/O for the first decade or so. That year they nominated Shreck, Monsters Inc., and Jimmy Neutron: Boy Genius… yeah, one of these things is not like the other (hint: it’s the one no one has ever thought about since 2001 when not looking back at this award category). Generally speaking the category tends to have Disney/Pixar battling it out with Dreamworks at the top of the ticket, semi-profitable but slightly artsier movies by companies like Aardman and Ghibli hoping to squeeze in, and all too often some second rate kiddie flick that gets haphazardly thrown in to pad things out. Very recently we’ve also seen a number of more obscure foreign projects getting in, but that pleasant trend has not been prevalent in the category through most of its history.
That having been said the category has, generally speaking, been a pretty reliable indicator of which animated films have entered the zeitgeist. In fact, despite my general apathy for family movies I’ve still managed to every single one of the movies to win this award between 2001 and 2012 with only two exceptions: 2006’s Happy Feet and 2011’s Rango and those two films will be the subjects of today’s article. Outside of their basic identies as large budget CGI animated family movies, these two films would seem to have very little in common on the surface. One is seen to be one of the most adventurous and exciting high profile animations of the last decade and the other… isn’t. And yet curious, if perhaps irrelevant, similarities to exist between the two films. For one, both movies were made outside of the usually dominant Disney, Pixar, and Dreamworks systems. Happy Feet was made by the Australian visual effects studio Animal Logic and distributed by Warner Brothers while Rango was animated by Industrial Light and Magic and distributed by Paramount vis-a-vie Nickelodeon Movies. Also, the films were not helmed by career animation directors and were instead directed by a pair of filmmakers who are perhaps best known for making live action adventure movies. And of course both films are about talking animals living in extreme environments, one in the arctic and the other in a desert. Between the two I want to get a good idea of the right way and the wrong way to go about winning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature.
Happy Feet (2006)
Generally speaking, I’ve tried to make this essay series a sort of trial by fire for films that have been heavily hyped. An attempt to take a skeptical look at the films that many people claim to be modern classics of the type but which I had reason to think had been given a free pass. Happy Feet, on the other hand, is something a bit different. The movie got mildly positive reviews when it came out in 2006 and it was a box office success (having famously come in ahead of Casino Royale in its opening weekend), but the people who praised it mostly did so in a shrugging “eh, it’s an inoffensive way to entertain children” kind of way. This is not one of the “cool” family movies that end up on top ten lists and were 2006 not an incredibly weak year for the category I doubt it would have won its Animated Feature Oscar (it was up against Cars and Monster House, the former was noticeably below Pixar’s usual standards and the later just wasn’t seen by enough people). In the years since it came out the film’s reputation has only shrunk and it generally only comes up for the purposes of mocking the Academy and pondering just what the hell happened to George Miller’s career in the years between Mad Max movies. Still, I have my reasons for wanting to see the movie beyond just checking off an Oscar winner. The thing is, I think part of the reason my reaction to some of the family movies I’ve seen is that I’ve only really seen the ones that are really well regarded and I wonder if that has thrown off my standards a little. If I’m really going to survey this genre I feel like I do need a better idea of just how bad these movies can get, or at least get an idea of what would be considered a mediocrity and this movie seems like just the thing to do that.
Happy Feet came out one year after a rather curious phenomenon where a French nature documentary called March of the Penguins had become a sleeper hit at the box office. I think box office pundits are still scratching their heads about that one. The film, which did have some really beautiful nature photography, seemed to have hit some sort of nerve in middle America because it showed penguins having a strong family bond despite being wild animals. However it happened, that documentary was a hit amongst family audiences and when Happy Feet came out a year later the public was in the midst of penguin-fever. This probably helped the movie to gross $200 million but it was a bit of a mixed blessing because it sort of made the movie look like a hastily made cash-in. Obviously that perception was a bit off, large scale animated movies don’t get made that quickly and George Miller couldn’t have known about March of the Penguins when Happy Feet was green-lit, but the optics were still kind of poor and that’s probably part of the reason that the movie is sort of considered the worst choice the Academy ever made in the Animated feature category.
If the film has a saving grace it’s probably the animation, which is a little dated today but still looks pretty good most of the time. The snowy Antarctic environments look really good and could almost be mistaken for genuine nature photography at times. The adult emperor penguins at times look a little too smooth and also lack certain features that would allow the audience to distinguish between them. The younger penguins look pretty good though and the animators do a really good job of adding textures to some of their fuzzy feathers. At times the action director in George Miller also lets loose and you can tell that he’s having a lot of fun with the freedom of camera movement that animation allows him. The highlight of the film is a chase scene where a young penguin tries to elude a leopard seal and Miller does a great job of making this otherwise incredibly cute animal look like a frightening predator.
I might go so far as to say that Happy Feet would look like a great movie if only it was on mute the whole time. The problems set in whenever the penguins open their mouths (er.. beaks) and start to speak. The film’s voice cast looks pretty good on paper but there are some really misbegotten decisions that were made when directing some of these performances starting with the rather bizarre decision to make a father penguin played by Hugh Jackman sound like a bad Elvis impersonation. Yeah… and that’s not the only strange accent choice in the film. A rather large number of the voice performances here seem to take the form of ethnic stereotypes. This is especially problematic when the protagonist comes across a group of Adelie penguins who all have Latin accents and all have fiery passionate tastes (except for their leader who sounds like an African American preacher for some reason). I get what they were going for, these were supposed to be the equivalent of foreigners in the story (much as the Elephant seals are made to be Australians and the flock of predatory birds sound like Italian-American gangsters), but the broadness of the performances are really jarring. The worst of the voices almost certainly come from Robin Williams, who voices the fieriest of the Latino Adelie penguins and the inexplicably black preacher penguin. Williams does both of these voices in his usual caffeinated improvisatory way and it really just doesn’t play very well at all.
The movie’s other auditory sin is almost certainly the music selection. A plot element of the film is that penguin society is based around singing as a form of mating call. To the audience this translates to a number of musical sequences, but instead of featuring original songs this movie takes the form of a jukebox musical. As a general rule of thumb I think jukebox musicals are kind of horrible ideas. They take popular music, remove it from the context that made it popular to begin with and has it performed by milquetoast musical theater performers. Even if I was in the mood to see popular hits sung by flightless arctic birds the song selection here is really random and terrible. For whatever reason Hollywood has long operated under the assumption that young children are really crazy for disco music and movies like this frequently end up with a bunch of music from the 70s in them. I’m hesitate to say that this, or any, movie would be made better if it had been filled Disney style original ballads, but it at least would have been more dignified than what they went with.
Beyond that this is really just kind of a typical animated kids movie. The movie is about a penguin who’s a misfit because he likes dancing more than singing, the other penguins used to laugh and call him names. They never let poor mumble join in any penguin games. Then as tends to happen in these movies, mumble comes to learn that he is special in his own way and everyone learns a lesson and shit. At least that seems to be how this is going to go, but the movie takes a turn for the cray-cray about a third of the way in, stops being about the usual self-acceptance shit and starts being about penguins using their magical anthropomorphic powers to start dancing and thus convince the humans to stop fishing in their waters… yeah, that happens. It’s a rushed and kind of messy ending that kind of feels like it was added late in production when everyone realized that the self-acceptance stuff was kind of boring. I remember this being a minor controversy with the Fox News set who thought Hollywood was trying to brainwash their kids or something. I don’t personally care that the movie is trying to teach kids about the environment, but I care that the movie seems oddly split between two sets of themes.
Anyway, yeah, this movie is pretty bad. Truth be told it wasn’t quite as painful as I thought it would be, then again my expectations were positively subterranean. At the very best you could say that it’s a mediocre movie made that was rendered pretty terrible by some disastrous and decisions along the way. It’s probably a coincidence, but I do find it telling that the next two movies that Pixar made seem like a response to it given that they were respectively a movie about a talking animal misfit with a talent his brethren don’t appreciate (Ratatouille) and an environmental parable about a plucky little thing saving the world (Wall-E). I also don’t have the slightest clue why George Miller decided to do this. He was the producer of Babe and the director of Babe: Pig in the City before this, so I guess he hit a point in his career when he just wanted to make movies for his kids, or maybe he just wanted to go for the easy cash-out. Either way it’s kind of fucked that this is what he ended up winning an Oscar for. In a weird twist of fate 2006 is one of only two years where I’ve seen all of the movies that were nominated for Best Animated Feature and I can conclusively say this is the worst of the three nominees, yes, even worse than Cars.
After the much derided win by Happy Feet it would be another five years until another non-Pixar film would win the Best Animated Feature Academy Award. That film was Gore Verbinski’s Rango and by the time the award was handed out it was pretty much a foregone conclusion that it would be the victor. Pixar’s movie that year was the much-derided Cars 2 which had the dubious honor of being the first Pixar feature not to garner a nomination in this category since its inception. With that studio out of the way Rango’s only competition that year were a mostly forgotten Shrek spinoff (Puss in Boots), an underwhelming Dreamworks sequel (Kung Fu Panda 2), and a pair of respected but underseen foreign productions (A Cat in Paris and Chico and Rita). Rango was the only nominee with anywhere near the combination of critical respect and popular support to have a shot at this award and when it won it was mostly celebrated. But why? Honestly I wasn’t sure what to expect from the film, it didn’t seem to fit in many of the other trends in animated family films and I didn’t really remember the specifics of why it was so well received.
Unlike most other movies I’ve looked at thus far this movie was not released by an established animation house. The logo in front of the film is for “Nickelodeon Movies” but as far as I can tell that isn’t actually a production company per se so much as a brand name. They are primarily a film arm of the children’s TV network of the same name which releases theatrical spinoffs of that network’s shows, but it’s also a brand name that Paramount Pictures slaps on to any given family film they happen to put out. There’s no real “house style” among their output and the logo can be seen in front of everything from Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin to the Michael Bay produced Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. For all intents and purposes this film instead seems to have been assembled and financed more in the way a live action studio film is with Verbinski’s Blind Wink production company being the main creative force and the animation itself being provided by the famous ILM special effects company.
Gore Verbinski was not exactly a stranger to making family entertainment. His first Hollywood production was a live action 1997 family film called MouseHunt, which wasn’t overly well received when it first came out but which has gotten something of a cult following over the years as the kids who saw it in the 90s have grown up. Aside from his mostly forgotten 2001 film The Mexican and his underrated 2005 film The Weather Man he has mostly made a career of walking that PG-13 line between family entertainment and movies for adults. His 2002 film horror film The Ring (probably his best work) wasn’t exactly marketed as a family film but did cannily widen its audience by avoiding the gory violence previously associated with the genre, making it something of a Poltergeist for the aughts which has almost certainly made for a number of memorable slumber parties over the years. Then his career really took off in 2003 when he worked with Disney to turn one of their theme park rides into a large scale action movie. The resulting film, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, was a huge hit and the ensuing ten plus years have mostly seen him make bad sequels to that film and of course the disastrous effort to recapture that magic in the form of The Lone Ranger.
Rango in many ways seems like an oasis in the middle of an otherwise very disappointing and very Johnny Depp dominated decade for the director. Johnny Depp is of course on board for this project as well and is probably one of its weakest elements. I’ve mentioned before (while reviewing The Corpse Bride, which was directed by Depp’s other BFF Tim Burton) that hiring Johnny Depp to be a voice actor is kind of insane. The guy’s entire appeal is rooted in his vaguely Keaton-esque physicality and his commitment to odd makeup choices. Vocally, his performances are middling at best and he’s completely out of his element when he can only work with his vocal chords. I can sort of see what they were thinking by casting him given that the Rango character is kind of meant to look like Depp’s take on Hunter S. Thompson, but he really doesn’t do much to give the character a likable personality and the character as written kind of needed as much help as he could get because he has a fairly clichéd arc and doesn’t have much of a personality beyond his rather transparent attempts to act tough.
As a whole, the film’s story is nothing too special. We’ve seen these movies where characters sort of accidentally fall into being treated as saviors by communities before being revealed to be frauds only to then save the day anyway through their strength of personality or whatever. The element that almost certainly made the film stand out is the strange world it takes place in and the creative ways that it’s brought to life. The film is an extended riff on the western genre, especially the spaghetti western, but with a handful of other cinematic references as well which for the most part actually seem clever rather than cheap. The catch of course is that all of the characters are desert animals like lizards and chickens and buzzards rather than humans and they all live in a little mini town out in the Nevada desert. These character designs are really quite good with just about every American desert animal being incorporated into the film as some sort of western trope whether it be a crow Native American, a turtle which resembles Noah Cross from Chinatown, or a rattlesnake that somehow manages to be a spitting image of Lee Van Cleef.
From a purely visual standpoint Rango himself is also a very interestingly designed character in part because he’s pretty ugly for a Hollywood protagonist. It doesn’t take a lot of courage to make a family film about a cute animal like a penguin or a panda bear but it does take some cajones to make an animated film about a reptile with oddly uneven eyes. It’s actually instincts like that which in many ways account for the film’s success, it’s doesn’t have the same pandering sensibilities that family movies of this kind usually do. It pushes the PG rating pretty far to the limit and isn’t shy about engaging in innuendo and gunplay or killing a couple of characters off. The film also garnered some controversy in 2011 because a handful of characters are seen smoking in it, which is something that has generally been scrubbed even from movies that are decidedly made for adults. Also, with the obvious exception of Johnny Depp the film is pretty restrained with its voice cast, opting generally to use characters actors like Bill Nighy and Ray Winstone rather than movies stars.
Honestly, I don’t really have a whole lot to say about Rango. It’s well put together and I certainly had some fun with it but there’s really not a lot there beneath the surface even when compared to some of the family movies out there. It’s a movie with Pixar-like attention to detail, craftsmanship, and general dignity but more of a Dreamworks level of actual storytelling. Had this story been told as an actual live action western with human actors there would simply be nothing there of interest at all, everything to be enjoyed about it are rooted in the execution. Still, I did like a lot of what Verbinski was doing with this world and he does a much better job of conjuring the spirit of the old west with this film than he would go on to do with The Lone Ranger. The animation in it is great and that rattlesnake is pretty fucking dope. In general, animation seems to suit Verbinski, a fact that probably shouldn’t be surprising given how cartoonish the Pirates of the Caribbean films were (in a good way, mostly) and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him making another animated film in the future.
I’ll be the first to admit that this was kind of a random pairing. I guess I found quite a few commonalities between the two, at least on paper, but really they aren’t movies that are linked together at all in the public eye. I will however dig up one last thing that seemed to link my experience watching both of them: the effect of expectations. I expected Happy Feet to be dogshit but was somewhat pleasantly surprised to find it watchable and I expected Rango to be a real cut above and was consequently disappointed that it was just kind of another family film (albeit one with a handful of pretty cool elements). In the grand scheme of things I don’t know that either movie have that much of a legacy. Happy Feet is a joke that no one cares about anymore and while I’m sure there are still plenty of people with nice things to say about Rango, I don’t see it isn’t a movie that seems to come up much in film discourse and doesn’t seem to have the staying power of some of the better family films I’ve seen thus far over the course of this little journey. As far as the Oscars they won, well; let’s just say George Miller and Gore Verbinski are the only people on the planet over the age of ten to be thankful for the Cars franchise.