It's ambitious, a hell of a lot more ambitious than any animated movie I've seen this year (and I think I've seen more than anyone should be asked to see ), but I appreciate the fact that it's not just about finding love and acceptance within one's family or community (well, partly about that) but about the survival of an entire species. I wouldn't say it actually hits the mark, but it does come closer than any recent English-language animated film I can think of towards the sweep and scale of Miyazaki's late films (Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke, 1997) comes to mind).
And there's a grandeur to Miller's filmmaking that's startling, if you're used to the kind of icebound animation found in the Ice Age movies, or the Discovery-Channel look of March of the Penguins--here, every glacier and mountain is intricately realized, from snow-drowned foot to rocky crest, every ice storm vividly evoked (there's this shot of icy vapor rushing over a ridge that's amazing, like a jet stream the size of the Amazon). Nightmarishly high ice pinnacles, vertiginously deep chasms, endless subzero desolation--it's an intriguing mix of the real and the hyperreal.
Better yet, the penguins might look cuddly at first sight, but there's little cuteness to their personalities--they can be every bit as hidebound with tradition or xenophobically racist or thrilled by sexual attraction as we are; one penguin's languorous waddle practically challenges the more hotblooded among us to tackle her and wrestle her down to the frozen floor.
The predators are unapologetically presented: malevolent seagulls, ferocious leopard seals, monstrous killer whales--this is not the benign nature seen in kiddie cartoons; if no one actually dies, you get the impression that it wasn't for lack of serious trying. One particularly hideous hunter (usually depicted as cute and obedient in almost any other nature flick) stares at the desperately fleeing penguin: you look into his terrifyingly lifeless black eyes (positioned above row upon row of great gnashing teeth) and you see--a reflection. Suddenly you feel you have an insight into their point of view, realize that their desire to eat the wobbly bags of tasty blubber is as desperate if not more so. If the birds manage to escape it's one more opportunity at survival lost, and a long, lonely time being hungry until the next opportunity pads along...
There are considerable flaws--the film is an unholy fusion of 'cutesy kiddie animation' and 'dark parable on ecological disaster,' and the stitches show. Frankly I can do without the former, but as Miller learned in Babe: Pig in the City (1998) (which was a commercial if not (in my opinion, at least) artistic disaster) one cannot have a consistent artistic vision and boxoffice success in the same production.
I like it; I like the risks it takes, the way it's willing to stretch credulity to make a point, even a bizarrely absurd one--the neck ornament hanging round a penguin's neck, for example, which later becomes as onerous and strangling as any symbolic albatross; or the surreal feel of sitting in a zoo habitat (Is that the horizon or a cleverly painted facsimile?)--isn't it ironic that what's meant to comfort an animal might only serve to confuse him? Or the way the mysterious Others finally present themselves, as ghostly images lurking behind thick glass. The finale might be a tad optimistic, but given what comes before it's not overwhelmingly, fatally so, I think. The film seriously shakes up one's idea of what an American animated film should look like, feel like, be about.