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Miller's 'Happy' Return

Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Rossiter Drake*

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Miller believes that compelling stories, more than stars and special effects, make great movies.

AFTER EIGHT YEARS, A TRIUMPHANT COMEBACK
(Courtesy of San Francisco Examiner) 

Eight years ago, Australian director George Miller, best known for the Mad Max trilogy, unveiled one of his characteristically grand visions in the form of a children’s film, Babe: Pig In the City. Despite a deservedly warm critical response, Miller’s Pig quickly proved a box-office turkey, grossing $18 million in the U.S. – a meager showing, considering the film’s $80 million budget. Stock in Universal’s film division plummeted, and studio heads rolled. When the smoke cleared, the Wall Street Journal summed up the highly anticipated sequel to the original Babe in a word: “disastrous.”

Now, Miller is back with Happy Feet, an animated adventure about Emperor penguins struggling to survive in their native Antarctica. And though it might be tempting to assume that Miller’s lengthy hiatus was somehow related to the commercial failure that felled the Babe franchise, it would also be wrong.

“The long layoff wasn’t intentional,” he concedes. “Four years ago, I was gearing up to do a fourth Mad Max with Mel Gibson, and we were just weeks away from shooting in Namibia. Then the Iraqi war was declared, the American dollar collapsed against the Australian dollar, and we couldn’t get vehicles and equipment prepared in America and transported to Africa. There was a great deal of uncertainty, and security became a huge issue. Everything slowed to a crawl. Warner Brothers was very anxious to make Happy Feet, so we jumped into that.”

Although Happy Feet was conceived long before the surprise success of last year’s Academy Award-winning March of the Penguins, Miller admits that the timing of the latter’s release was a strategic ploy by the studio to whet interest in his musical fantasy. He credits the inspiration for the story, which he co-wrote, to a British television series first released in 1993.

“I was always attracted to the epic nature of Antarctica,” he explains. “About 10 years ago, when I saw Life in The Freezer, the BBC documentary series on penguins, it struck me that there was a great story there. Penguins live such extraordinary lives, richly allegorical in terms of how we conduct ourselves as humans – the way they survive at the far end of the planet, huddling against the cold, sharing the warmth, singing to find a mate.”

It took him two years to figure out how to make the movie, giving technology time to catch up to his sweeping vision, and his patience paid off. Happy Feet, with its richly detailed landscapes and colorful, lifelike characters, is a visual triumph. Even so, Miller, who still plans a fourth installment in the Mad Max saga with or without the aging Gibson, was not prepared to begin this epic undertaking until he was satisfied with his story. It is a hallmark of all his films, most of which he has written, and goes a long way toward explaining the consistent strength of his work.

“There’s only one thing that attracts me to any project, whether it be ‘Mad Max’ or fables about pigs or penguins – the power of the story,” he says. “Story is king! What’s so seductive about working in film is that you can go into whatever world you like, but you’re always trying to find the most meaningful stories. So, to me, there’s not much difference between Mad Max, Babe or the creatures of Happy Feet. Without compelling stories, they’d go nowhere.”


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