Sunday, December 17, 2006

Unhappy Scottish Feet

On Friday, my wife and I saw Happy Feet. It is a coming to age story about a young penguin, Mumbles, whose feet do not fit into the local penguin community, because they are happy. Even though his penguin community has a vibrant culture that expresses itself in word and in song, the Scottish-accented elders are rather dour when it comes to dancing feet, which implicitly advocate "paganism" and encourage "backsliding." (Of course, since it is harder to do the "moonwalk" (or "backslide") without any feet, perhaps they have a point.) According to the Scottish elders, the recent drop in the fish food supply comes as a punishment from their god due to the gratuitous movement of Mumble's feet. (It is odd to note that the Scottish band, the Benachally Ceilidh Band, has an album entitled Happy Feet. Of course, it might simply be a protest album against happy feet. I don't know.) So, Mumbles goes on a journey where he meets a different breed of penguins who are short, have Latino accents and, best of all, value his feet in all their tappiness!

There is, of course, more to the story, but I suppose what I find particularly fascinating is the strange cultural/religious associations surrounding the penguins. There is something rather surreal about Scottish-accented penguins disclaiming against dancing. Why choose for them to be Scottish? Why are they so religious? Why are the Latino penguins so much more accepting of feet? Now, some film critics have already explored the "happy feet" as an allegory for "gay identity," because the movie's message is that Mumbles's parents must learn to accept him as he is: a penguin who can dance. Given that Mumbles is heterosexual, it's a bit difficulty for me to see the "gay identity" bit, but perhaps I'm just naive and unsophisticated. However, while discussing the movie with my wife on the way back, it seemed that the "happy feet" could just as well be read as an allegory for religious identity: the movie can in fact be read as anti-Presbyterian and crypto-Catholic.

Let me oversimplify. Historically, Scotland (not counting the highlands) is very Protestant and Presbyterian: preaching of the word is central. Word has priority over the image. Presbyterianism is against frills in worship and has an established reputation for iconoclasm. This is also not a religious community famous for its liturgical dance. Hispanic culture, on the other hand, has Catholic roots. In Catholicism, there is more emphasis on the Lord's Supper/Eucharist, the incarnation and "the Lord's body" (not just during His earthly ministry, but received in the Eucharist).

So, in the movie, our group of Scottish penguins place a high value on the word and singing (each penguin has a "heart song"), but they are opposed to forms of bodily expression. The movie suggests that Presbyterianism is ultimately gnostic, opposed to physicality and incarnational reality. The Latino penguins, on the other hand, are represented as both good dancers and good singers, perfectly harmonizing song and dance, i.e., correctly integrating Word and sacrament. In the movie, it is not so much that Scottish and Spanish religious cultures can learn from each other so much as that Scottish culture, to be complete, must become like Latino culture. The movie suggests that Presbyterians can never have happy feet unless they become Catholic and/or Latino! Since becoming Latino is not a viable possibility for many Presbyterians, the movie suggests that the only way for us to be happy not just with our heads, but with our feet, is to be Catholic.

Disclaimer: I am not seriously arguing this interpretation. For one thing, it attributes more knowledge about Scottish religious history to the writers than they actually have.


At 12:46 PM, Anonymous Tim Black said...

Becky and I had a similar take. Except, we didn't think the Latinos were Catholic. Their worship centered around the charismatic authority of their combination shamanistic pagan witch-doctor Black Baptist preacher. The movie contrasted the two religious cultures, but also showed both religions to be false, however important for maintaining a set of shared values. The Presbyterians couldn't see the common grace in dancing, but learned to dance when threatened by the aliens when they proved to be real. The Latinos valued their charismatic leader, but in the end he was a powerless liar, a showman, who tragically misunderstood or at least miscommunicated the nature of his necklace. Perhaps it's my Scottish background, but the movie delighted in the fun of song and dance at the expense of true and false religion alike.

I hope someday to enable comments and the like on my blog, so as to allow a response when I drop in like this.


At 1:47 PM, Blogger Leopoldtulip said...

I didn't really discuss the shaman figure, largely because it undermined my argument :^) I hadn't thought of him as "Baptist," though--just a voodoo/shaman/superstition figure.


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