Pirates and Penguins

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

The ongoing success of the CGI movie Happy Feet proves at least three things: 1) that director George Miller has finally atoned for following the miraculous Babe with its druggy disgrace of a sequel, 2) that mash-up pop is now officially not even remotely cool, 3) that penguins have joined pirates as pop culture mascots of the moment.

Anyone else notice the recent pirate n' penguin proliferation? They're everywhere. Go to Disneyland expecting a meeting with Mickey, Donald & company and you're instead marauded by packs of rum-swilling scallywags. Turn on PBS or Animal Planet and you'll enjoy a deep catalog of wildlife films featuring waddling arctic birds. Ever since Johnny Depp channeled Keith Richards in Pirates of the Caribbean and French naturalists mined anthropomorphism for gold in March of the Penguins, pirates and penguins are the hottest thing in the non-copyrightable kid media universe.

It's worth noting any time a character breaks out of kid media in such a dramatic way. It's especially worth noting when the zeitgeist is simultaneously infiltrated by icons that represent such diametrically opposed characteristics. Think about it. When pirates are the most popular costume on Halloween, when the movie about dancing penguins is preceded by previews for a movie about surfing penguins, when "talk like a pirate day" becomes a national media event, when Original Penguin becomes the hottest retro brand is sportswear... it means something. It means these characters have gotten under our skin. They speak to us.

And what do they say? Two different things entirely.

Pirates, of course, are lawless, drunken, slovenly, wily, individualistic, brutal, unhygienic, rootless, venal, greedy, foolhardy and anti-authoritarian. They are what we'd be if we severed all ties with families and bosses and forces of civility. They venture forth, they overdo, they revel and rebel. Their popularity speaks to an intensifying desire to buck against forces of regularity and restraint. We want to unshackle our inner wench or rascal, get drunk at the office party, vomit on the boss' shoes and make off with the buried doubloons. They are our id, our hidden libertarian, our inner rock star.

Penguins are something else. They're communal, lovable, affectionate, noble, habitual, faceless, dutiful, familial and predictable. They are what we'd be if we gave over entirely to the rule of the crowd. They nurture their young, follow the pack, huddle together against the merciless cold. Our inner penguin urges us to carpool the neighbor's kids to soccer practice, follow mom's advice and vote for the candidate with the best plan to mend the social safety net. They are our super ego, our progressive-democrat, our inner social worker.

So which are you, pirate or penguin?

As a father of three who spends much of his time shuttling around in a minivan with more cup holders than horsepower, I fall squarely into the penguin pack. But as is so often the case in such polarizing red state-blue state comparisons, I'm purple. Among my favorite CDs for the grueling commute to school: Captain Bogg and Salty, a kiddie rock act that specializes in, yes - pirate songs.

Quick, Dreamworks, greenlight that treatment about a band of pirate penguins!

Cross-posted from