You may be a little surprised to see the words ‘Happy Feet’ and ‘Religious Indoctrination’ in the same sentence. What may ultimately seem like a warm-hearted tale of a handicapped penguin’s quest to discover the interruption in his colony’s food chain is actually a layered tale of environmental damage and religious indoctrination (and the challenges one faces in trying to escape it). In today’s post we will be exploring that connection and cracking the case wide open for all to see.
For those of you who haven’t seen Happy Feet, you’re missing out on a rather entertaining film. This post is unlikely to make much sense to you otherwise but allow me to quickly summarise it for you, just in case. Happy Feet follows Mumble, a slightly handicapped penguin who lacks the ability to sing (an essential part of the mating process) but can instead tap his feet in a rhythmical manner (although not always on purpose). This is due to his father, Memphis, dropping the egg during one of the coldest winters. Being continuously alienated by his colony, Mumble eventually stumbles across a different penguin colony where singing is seen as a hobby rather than an essential part of life. Here, they collect pebbles in an attempt to woe the females.
Mumble and his “amigos” are eventually banished from his colony due to his “dangerous ideas” and so set out on a quest to find the fish (the lack of which has been blamed on Mumble and his feet). Eventually Mumble finds a giant ship that is collecting all of the fish and taking it away and so he follows it until he eventually passes out and lands on a beach. From here, Mumble ends up in a zoo, does a dance, humans put a tracker on him and send him back to his colony and eventually everyone lives happily ever after….typical children’s film, right? Wrong!
The religious element of the film was nothing new to me and I’d always intended to write a post about it…but as time went on it became less and less of a concern and I figured that it wasn’t worth the effort. That is until a couple of days ago when I re-watched Happy Feet and noticed a bizarre aspect that had eluded me in the past. The word “penguin” can be perfectly switched out for any religion (I chose Christianity).
One thing you have to keep in mind is that the colony worships the mighty “Quin” (I’m not sure how you spell it exactly as it’s taken from the end of the word “penguin”). So there is already a very open religious element to the film but it’s the underlying element that I find so interesting. Let me give you some examples that I noted down. These were all the times after the first few instances where the word penguin was used and could be perfectly swapped for “Christian”.
“…it’s not Penguin”
“…hardly a Penguin at all”
“…it just ain’t Penguin”
“…he’s a regular (something, I missed the word) Penguin”
“…ancient Penguin wisdom”
“…brave Penguin nation”
Tell me that none of these have a solid meaning when the word Christian is switched in. There is a reason I chose Christianity as well which I’m going to explain in more detail later on but I’ll share one very specific quote that I believe highlights the reason. During a scene where Mumble is tap dancing and others are joining in, one of the elders says this to him: “that kind of pagan display” and then goes on to blame him for the food shortage. Of course one famous religion has been known to deal with Paganism in such a manner…
Memphis Drops the Ball…or the Egg
In order to delve deeper into this bizarre underlying commentary we have to examine key moments in the story. We’ll start with Mumble’s father, Memphis. During the winter when the females head off to collect food, it is the responsibility of the males to shelter the eggs and also each other. They create a sort of wall and take it in turns to face the cold. During this time, the elders lead chants to the great Quin/Win (I think Quin but I couldn’t find a solid source) which all the penguins are supposed to follow. They even show a giant penguin in the sky who is almost being formed by all the chanting penguins.
Unfortunately, Memphis is too distracted by his own singing (specifically the love song between him and his partner) and almost as a sign of his lack of faith and commitment to the great Quin, he drops the egg. Doing so for even a few seconds is enough to literally freeze it and kill the offspring inside. Memphis sees the resulting tappity feet of Mumble as being a curse or punishment for his distracted mind and lack of Quin-worship. Something that is evident throughout the film.
Mumble was always a curious little fella and during his early years he finds himself victim to some hungry birds looking for roaming penguins to snack on. One of these birds has an identification bracelet (if that’s even what they are called) around his ankle which he goes on to explain was put there by aliens after being abducted. This highlights two key issues within this films:
1) Mumble now has more information on the outside world than any other Penguin within his colony, all of whom conform without question and aren’t curious about life beyond their grounds and 2) Lack of information on a subject leads to ridiculous conclusions. It highlights a very noticeable train of thought within religion where if something can’t be explained in terms we already know then it must be something completely “out there”. This can easily relate to the idea of filling all gaps in knowledge with God.
Within Mumble’s colony there is a small group of elders who are part of some sort of council. They are responsible for guiding the beliefs and opinion of all the conforming penguins. They are essentially the Vatican to the colony’s Catholic Church with the leader being the Pope…who for some strange reason is Scottish. There is an Italian member as well though. This group denies the existence of any aliens because it goes against the narrative they’ve been pushing.
They are also the ones who label Mumble’s dancing as “that kind of pagan display” and it is they who alienate Mumble by forcing his own parents to talk him out of his mind set. While Mumble’s mother stands her ground and defends Mumble, his father who is still guilt-ridden from dropping Mumble feels he has no choice but to support the council. When Mumble refuses to conform and support the Elder’s point of view, he is banished from the colony. This is where Mumble’s journey to find the fish begins.
One thing is evident between all belief groups within the film. Whether it be Mumble’s colony and the mighty Quin, the amigos and Lovelace, the predatory birds or the elephant seals, they all view humans as being alien. Each has a unique view of “God” but all view the one thing they have evidence of but can’t explain as being alien. I think this is an interesting parallel to the religions of the world. They may all have one theme running through them e.g. God. Yet all have different opinions on themselves and their interactions with their God. This is just a minor point but I figured it was worth mentioning.
Upon chasing a fishing vessel, Mumble ultimately washes up on a beach and is thrown into a zoo. Here he meets seemingly braindead penguin who refers to him as Dave. “Try the fish, Dave”. This is Penguin Heaven. To the penguins it is heaven because they are rewarded with all the fish they can eat (something that was running out at home) in exchange for doing nothing and having zero responsibilities or goals. Almost like some higher power granting them wishes. When speaking to one penguin in particular, Mumble asks him if its anywhere near Emperorland to which he responds that it’s “anywhere you want it to be”.
Of course the reason that it is named Penguin Heaven is due to it being based on an exhibit in Sea World, Orlando, Florida but I think it also has a deeper meaning. Heaven is often seen as exactly like Penguin Heaven: you’re free to enjoy yourself, you don’t have to worry about responsibility, you can be happy and get all the food you want, but I think it raises a darker issue. What if you get to heaven but none of your family do? What if you’re up there enjoying all the bounties that heaven has to offer while your family starve? Is that heaven? We see Mumble attempt to throw fish to his hallucinated family (who also refer to him as Dave). Not to mention the other key issue: boredom. Without any purpose, without the freedom to explore, the risk of death, the challenges that normal life throws at you, you become a zombie and end up braindead like the only penguin Mumble communicates with.
The film ends with mumble being returned to Emperorland where he is greeted by Gloria but told to leave by the Elders. Mumble explains his story and tells them about the aliens which the Elders outright deny. Mumble’s experience is irrelevant to them because they have a narrative that needs to be maintained and despite the fact that it is in reality a far more realistic explanation for the famine than one penguin’s tapping feet, the Elders stand their ground.
Upon revealing that he has alien technology attached to his back, the Elders then label him a traitor for leading the aliens to Emperorland. This of course raises questions as moments ago they were denying the existence of such beings altogether. We then see a battle of sorts between the old ways and the new: the archaic chants and singing of the elders and their supporters vs Mumble and his tapping feet. Eventually the aliens arrive and out of fear of death (or something similar) the elders eventually follow Mumble and support this new approach.
I think this in itself also highlights an aspect of religion: fear of death is not only the cause of most religions (in one form or another, I’m not saying people are religious because they fear death) as is fear of the unknown. Put into a situation where all the evidence is piled against them, religions will stand their ground until such a time that their destruction seems imminent, at which point they will follow the masses. Think about all major theories that have come into existence throughout human history: the order of the solar system, gravity, evolution, the big bang theory, ETC. The more that science explains, the more that religions adapt their beliefs to fit around the evidence. Very few people view the bible as being 100% literal and that is because more and more of it makes less and less sense in relation to history and science…but also morality.
Even the Pope’s throughout history have had drastically differing points of view: from supporting fascism, to hating gays, to saying evolution was God’s work. We end up with thousands upon thousands of different interpretations of the Bible (through Christianity’s denominations, of which there are 40,000 or so).
Anyway guys, that’s my say on the film Happy Feet. I hope that you enjoyed it and as always, leave a comment below or hit me up on Twitter! Peace!