George Miller Says He Approached 'Happy Feet 2' With The Same Respect As Classic Fairy Tales

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by Todd Gilchrist
November 16, 2011 10:01 AM
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Looking at the billboards and advertising for “Happy Feet 2,” there’s no mistaking those vivid images of DayGlo, tap-dancing penguins for anything other than entertainment aimed at, well, everyone. But writer-director George Miller is interested in more than making another mainstream blockbuster, even if it does feature animated animals whose voices are provided by movie and pop stars. “The last thing you want is for your film to be like every other film,” Miller told The Playlist in an interview last week. “So I try to find what’s interesting out there in the world. Clearly they’re anthropomorphic fables which are basically metaphors for the way we are in the world, and you try to make them as interesting as you can.”

Over the past two decades, Miller has become one of the most successful, if unlikely, purveyors of film for family-friendly audiences. After producing the first “Babe,” he directed the second, and then helmed two “Happy Feet” installments, the latest of which is due out on Friday. But having come from the decidedly grown-up “Mad Max” films, Miller said he was always interested in doing more with his movies than just making money – especially if they were series or sequels. “I think that what tends to happen when people do sequels or when they work in animation or kids’ films, is in a lot of cases it feels like people are kind of phoning it in in a way,” he said. “But you have to treat them the way you do any kind of film.”

In almost all of the films above, Miller injected a subversive or unusual edge to the characters or storytelling, creating stories that avoided familiar conventions but still felt completely satisfying. But he indicated that while he wants each project to be unique and make full use of his creativity, he isn’t deliberately trying to sneak weird or eccentric ideas into them. “Once you’re going and into the process, you’re kind of just going on instinct,” he explained. “There’s no conscious intent to be subversive. It’s just trying to make it interesting and perhaps fresher than people might have seen before.”

In fact, Miller said that he sees his films in something of the same tradition as the fables and fairy tales that most of us read as children – which, he reminded, often had their own oddball, intense and unusual ideas. “I think you have to treat these stories with very tremendous respect,” Miller said. “If you look at the anthology of the great, enduring stories, they have a tremendous complexity and depth to them. And if you look at the fairy tale stories that pretty universally endure, like 'Hansel & Gretel' and some of them, they’re pretty serious, and the ones you remember from childhood, they’re not trivial.”

“Like, among my top two or three films of all time is ‘Pinocchio’,” Miller revealed. “I’m talking about the Disney version, and on the surface of things, it looks like a kids’ movie and it’s got iconic characters we all know. But the depth of that film is extraordinary; it’s a film that as I’ve watched it through my life, my perceptions have shifted.” He explained that the film affected him differently at different times in his life, which gave the film a continued sense of universality and relevance. “As a child, I was really struck by its cautionary tale, the idea that you need a conscience, and when Pinocchio was taken down the wrong track and ended up smoking and playing too much pool and he ends up with ears and braying like a donkey and then has to redeem himself. And as an adult the yearning of Gepetto for a child such that he makes his own wooden child, these are powerful, mythological things going on here.”

“And Dr. Seuss I think has a lot of great content and subtext and so on,” Miller added. “So what I’m saying is that I don’t feel that when I do these ‘Happy Feet’ or the ‘Babe’ [films] I’m doing a sort of more trivial or lesser work.”

Among Miller’s more adult-oriented projects is an upcoming reboot of “Mad Max” entitled “Fury Road,” which we reported on late last week. But the acclaimed filmmaker said that extenuating circumstances--not a lack of interest--prevented him from taking on that film or some of the others to which he’s been attached in recent years. “There’s a lot of other stories that I want to tell, but everything keeps on getting in the way,” he observed. “Twice now I’ve tried to get ‘Fury Road,’ the new ‘Mad Max’ movie made, and we were about to begin shooting at the beginning of the year, and we’ve had unprecedented rains in the Australian deserts, and what was a flat, red, dry wasteland is literally now a flower garden. The great salt lakes in the center where we were going to be shooting are now full of pelicans and fish. So we’re going to Naimibia next year to shoot, and I’m looking forward to that.”

Although that film was obviously gestating for several years, Miller said that ultimately his approach to continuing to tell stories – be they “Mad Max,” “Happy Feet,” or something else – is largely intuitive, and it’s got to come from genuine inspiration. “In the second one, when I saw the first one’s elephant seals, I knew I wanted to see elephant seals,” he remembered. “The krill idea came and I thought that was a real interesting way to look at that world – from that dimension. From their point of view, this was an epic universe. And to see Mumbles having to deal with, like, speed-parenting because the world is changing so rapidly, that all came full of potential immediately.”

But don't ask him just yet about a third installment. “But right now, I couldn’t think of another film,” he said. “If someone put a gun up to my head and said come up with a third ‘Happy Feet,’ I wouldn’t have a clue.”

"Happy Feet 2" opens on November 18th.

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