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It is time we sorted these penguins out. They have never been the same since falling over backwards while watching planes fly overhead in the Falklands. More recently, they were caught in the debating crossfire between Christians and atheists over the meaning of March of the Penguins. That was the documentary cited by God-believers as proof of “intelligent design”, although it seemed to many to prove that life in Antarctica, for large standing avians at least, was a multiform cock-up.

Happy Feet had to be a refreshing change. Here penguins get to sing, tapdance and be dubbed by Robin Williams. The digimation is gorgeous: craggy icescapes, sapphire seas. The lines of white-and-black birds resemble picturesque queues of head waiters. The songs are wall to wall. And when the little chick Mumble, who grows up to be voiced by Elijah Wood, essays his first soft-paw shuffle, the audience delivers a megatsunami of “oohs” and “aahs”.

Mumble’s eccentric dancing talent is tut-tutted over by his parents, though applauded by the young Latino penguins led by Ramon (Robin Williams). Then there is the lonely sage and rockhopper Lovelace (Williams again), who thinks conformity is for the birds and a greater truth exists beyond the Supreme Being used as a disciplinary deity by the penguin tribal elders. Mumble and his pals duly trek to the extreme edge of the world to learn the secret of life, death and existence.

So – what do you know? This Christmas-timed family film written, produced and directed by George Miller (Mad Max, the Babe saga) turns out to be another fable about God versus Not-God. Happily, though, it is more. Its philosophy is holistic rather than holy, with health warnings for the future of all human beings, saintly or secular. After a sequence of accidents has landed Mumble in a seaquarium – with nicely sinister Truman Show touches as he stubs his senses against the artificial in-finities – the film becomes near-surreal. It ends on a Clockwork Orange note as kindly human terrorism, the fascism of “care”, brings its deadly warmth to the South Pole.

By now the “kidflick” sticker is peeling off the tin and tots in the audience are beginning to wonder what is hitting them. A little girl in the row behind me, at the public preview, turned to her companion and said: “I thought this was a film about tap-dancing penguins.”

They stayed the course, though. So will adults, many of whom will admire the film’s courage in seeking a northwest passage from children’s fare to grown-up fairy tale. (I am mixing Poles, but no more than the weird scene that has the penguins ogling the Aurora Bor-ealis.) Though it is tiring listening to Robin Williams in duplicate, and though early scenes trade on coochy-coo sentimentality, the last act sets the mind dancing as well as the feet. Better the brave than the banal, the occasionally puzzling (though persistently picturesque) than the implacably preachy.

The US vs. John Lennon is the startling tale of the Nixon presidency’s persecution of an ex-Beatle. It’s all true – documentarists David Leaf and John Scheinfeld did the research – and it makes the Bush regime’s home-security paranoia seem restrained. Clearly regarding the Vietnam-protesting Brit as a commie pinko in America’s midst, the FBI tried every smear and slander to deport him. But in a democracy, if justice is given a chance, the individual can eventually win. Against the state, if not the lone gunman.

The film’s gallery of veteran witnesses boggles the brain. Are these people still alive? Angela Davis (black activist), John Dean (Watergate whistle-blower), George McGovern (crash-and-burn Democratic White House candidate), Ron “Born on the 4th of July” Kovic: all here, along with the distinguished relicts of 20th century left-wing punditry, led by Gore Vidal (now resembling Charles Laughton in Advise and Consent) and Noam Chomsky. Here too is Yoko Ono, scattering her thoughts like flowers on the grave of the 1970s, with Leaf and Scheinfeld providing the funeral video. Their archive footage of John and Yoko’s famous “bed-in” proves that you can protest a war and be comfy at the same time.

Wasn’t that the problem? Wasn’t Lennon a champagne rebel? Or, worse, a celebrity singer mugged and manoeuvred by the American peace movement? The film is honest enough to hint this. In fact, without its few – too few – squeaks of discomfort it would be Saint John. So we give thanks whenever the opposition is called to the stand, even if it is G. Gordon Liddy, hissable Watergate rogue, recalling the moment he lit his cigar from a peace demonstrator’s
candle with the words “There, you’re useful for some purpose.” Ssss! It’s the pantomime season already.

A girl gets pregnant without marital sex; her society’s first response is to vilify her; then she becomes a mother, a sacred figure and a talisman in the future of her people. That is the plot of two films this week. The Nativity Story recounts the birth of Christ, The Heart of the Game the rise and rise of an American girls’ school basketball team.

Let’s take the more interesting subject first: girls’ basketball. Ward Serrill’s documentary is a fired-up tale, totally enthralling, of a team led to national triumph over seven years, in which Serrill filmed them throughout. (Was he mad? Lucky? Clairvoyant?) Two miracles did the trick. First the girls were pepped up by a new trainer, an ex-tax professor who had Damascenely converted to sports guru: a rabid morale-rouser who looks and acts like Mickey Rooney after a month on a desert island drinking sea-water. More important still was Darnellia, a black girl who played basketball the way Pavlovla performed pirouettes. She had a baby at just the wrong time but defied censure, even near-ostracism by the sports governing body, to storm back and thread hoops.

Serrill’s movie is so much more compelling than The Nativity Story that I feel sorry for Christians who must march themselves off to these hundred minutes of liturgical treacle. Luckily, I am a non-believer; unluckily I still have to watch it. Be prepared for naff accents, insipid performances, photography in reverential sepia, and so much soundtrack choiring that by the close you are suffering with celestial tinnitus. The direction by Catherine Hardwicke makes Mel Gibson seem a madcap maverick. Which, of course, he is.

The Holiday is your all-star Hollywood comedy for Christmas: a confetti-brained romcom about two ocean-crossing house-swappers (Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet) who meet and fall in love with, respectively, Jude Law and Jack Black.

The Diaz-Law dalliance is set in snowbound Surrey, in a humble period cottage that would set you back £1m and be “listed” up to its rafters. Winslet and Black get the commoners’ romance in LA. Here all is garish, feisty and teary-eyed, including Eli Wallach’s role as an old screenwriter urged by our Kate to cast aside his zimmer, on the eve of a career recognition evening, and walk. We the audience are soon legless with disbelief, and brainless too. But in that condition the film is almost enjoyable.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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