A penguin out of step

Mumble, <em>Happy Feet's</em> tap-dancing penguin, is an anti-religious maverick for our time

Back in 2005, Luc Jacquet's documentary March of the Penguins became an unlikely inspiration for the Christian right in the US culture wars.

The group of emperor penguins going about their penguin business was held up as illustrating that biblical values, particularly monogamy, perseverance and family commitment, are inherent in nature. Others have drafted the penguins into making a case for intelligent design and a case against abortion. As the conservative film critic Michael Medved said of Christian audiences: "This is the first movie they've enjoyed since The Passion of the Christ."

Christian allegory has almost become a sine qua non of family films expected to do well at the US box office - witness the Christmas hit of 2005 - The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - and how the film version of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy will be substantially rewritten to blunt its humanist message. So it was with incredulous joy that I sat (twice) through George Miller's Happy Feet, an animated film that seems to have been scripted expressly as a mischievous riposte to Jacquet's Jesus-loving penguins.

Mumble Happy Feet is an adorable emperor-penguin chick with the voice of Elijah Wood and the feet of the tap-dancer Savion Glover. But Mumble's dancing, a unique talent with which he expresses his deepest feelings, makes the rest of his community uncomfortable. Noah, the leader of the penguin elders, describes him as an "aberration", and even his Elvis-loving father laments that "it just ain't penguin, son". Emperor penguins are supposed to attract their mates by singing their 'heart-song', and Mumble's singing is . . . Well, as Ramón, the small Mexican penguin nasally voiced by Robin Williams says: "I heard an animal do that once but then they rolled him over and he was dead."

So, on the surface, Happy Feet peddles the standard Hollywood kids' film theme of celebrating difference, being true to yourself and not letting the bastards grind you down, but beyond this is a not-so-subtle philosophy that has already begun to trouble conservative commentators. The Fox News anchor Neil Cavuto has accused the film of containing "far-left propaganda" and said, "I "far-left propaganda" and said, "I half expected an animated Al Gore to show up." Glorious as that image is, the environmental angle is not what is most challenging about this film. The motor of its plot is opposition between conservative religion, based on tradition, and received beliefs. When the supply of fish begins to diminish, Noah tells Mumble that "the Great Guin gives and takes away", and that "we can hold fast to our ways or bend to the fetid fantasies of a dancing fool". But the more the elders determine that the scarcity of fish depends on the Great Guin, the more Mumble's determination to prove by empirical evidence why the fish are disappearing gains credence.

"Your foreign friends and their easy ways have brought famine upon us," says Noah the Elder of Happy Feet's Mexican chums, but then even he quickly realises that it is up to his followers to redress the equilibrium of the world. "The Great Guin didn't put things out of whack," Noah announces, but the truth is uncovered by Mumble Happy Feet after his journey to the Forbidden Shore and the world of Men.

Mumble's exuberant dancing and disregard for the values of his forefathers make him a rebel. And his anti-religious stance - eventually adopted by all the penguins - makes him a tap-dancing maverick for all time.