Tales From The Box Office: Happy Feet, Not Fury Road, Is George Miller's Biggest Movie

(Welcome to Tales from the Box Office, our column that examines box office miracles, disasters, and everything in between, as well as what we can learn from them.)

The career of George Miller is undoubtedly a fascinating one. The man directed one of the most profitable films ever made in the form of "Mad Max" back in 1980, which launched the franchise that has defined much of his career. The man also wrote 1994's Oscar-nominated "Babe" before directing its very bizarre follow-up "Babe: Pig in the City." He also helmed "The Witches of Eastwick" and a segment in "Twilight Zone: The Movie." A varied career if ever there were such a thing.

But Miller's greatest contribution to cinema came in 2015 when, after years of false starts, he finally got to bring "Mad Max: Fury Road" to the screen. A blockbuster so beloved that it topped many best of the decade lists and went on to win six Oscars. Well beyond its box office haul, this film united critics and audiences alike who were transfixed by its audacious and showstopping spectacle. Yet, amazingly enough, it is an animated movie about penguins that is actually Miller's biggest movie to date — not his all-time action movie epic that will probably outlive all of us.

Indeed, 2006's animated "Happy Feet" is actually the filmmaker's biggest hit to date. In honor of his latest movie, "Three Thousand Years of Longing," we're going to look back at the film, how it only came about because "Fury Road" couldn't get made at the time, and what lessons we can learn from it all these years later. Let's dig in, shall we?

The movie: Happy Feet

Miller had actually been trying to get "Fury Road" made for quite some time but things kept getting in the way. "Happy Feet" came together almost by accident and was actually the director's first adventure behind the camera since 1998's "Babe: Pig in the City." Even though it wasn't the movie he was looking to make in the early 2000s, the idea for the film had been kicking around in his brain for years.

In an interview from 2006, Miller explained that he initially got the idea to make "Happy Feet" while, oddly enough, making "The Road Warrior." It all came from a grizzled cameraman who put the idea to do a film in Antarctica in the director's head. Though, admittedly, it doesn't seem like this is what he had in mind.

"Back when I was directing 'The Road Warrior' — over 20 years ago, now — I was in the Australian desert. And there was this grizzled old cameraman called Billy Grimmond who was on second unit. We were sitting in this bar, having a milkshake, and he looked across at me and said, 'Antarctica.' He'd shot a documentary there. He said, 'You've got to make a film in Antarctica. It's just like out here, in the wasteland. It's spectacular.' And that always stuck in my head."

Given that actually filming a movie in Antarctica is pretty impractical, Miller's idea of doing an animated film actually made a lot of sense. A penguin-centric musical, however? That sounds about right coming from the guy who made an Oscar-worthy movie about a talking pig.

Fury Road gets derailed, penguins march in

Another odd thing is that, in another universe, Miller actually made "Mad Max: Fury Road" in the early 2000s instead of this animated film. He had it prepped and ready to go but, in that same interview, the filmmaker explained that a literal war breaking out, coupled with an economical collapse, got in the way.

"We were in Namibia, Africa, and we were about to start shooting — and that's when the war started. And at that point, the American dollar, against the currencies we were working with — the Australian dollar and the South African rand — crashed 20 percent, and we lost a lot of our budget.

Luckily, Warner Bros. was keen to stay in the Miller business and, instead, gave him the money to make a very different kind of movie. The kind where penguins sing and dance, creating mash-up songs to find their soulmates. With a star-studded cast that includes the likes of Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Elijah Wood, and the late Robin Williams, Miller was unexpectedly about to make the biggest hit of his remarkably unique career.

It wasn't as simple as all of that though, as Miller and his team spent years developing the computer technology needed to actually make the film, and another three and a half years actually making it. But by winter 2006, the time had finally come for the man behind "Mad Max" to make his return to the big screen after nearly a decade away.

The financial journey

Warner Bros. released "Happy Feet" in theaters on November 17, 2006, giving it some prime real estate ahead of the Thanksgiving holiday. With a $100 million budget, they were counting on the film to be a big hit. The only obstacle in the way? Bond, James Bond. The film opened on the same weekend as "Casino Royale," which served as Daniel Craig's introduction to the role of 007. While it is almost certainly true that "Casino Royale" will live on longer in the greater public consciousness, this initial battle at the box office was one that James Bond could not win.

"Happy Feet" debuted at number one domestically, taking in $41.5 million, narrowly beating "Casino Royale," which finished with $40.8 million (even if Bond finished bigger worldwide with $605 million). That set up the animated film for a nice, happy little run topping the domestic charts for a pretty incredible three weeks. In the end, it grossed a really impressive $198 million in North America to go with $187 million overseas for a grand total of $385 million. That, in turn, paved the way for a (slightly less successful) sequel, 2011's "Happy Feet Two," which would keep Miller away from his return to "Mad Max" for another five years.

As for the eventual release of "Fury Road," for as much as it is remembered as one of the greatest action movies ever made, it earned a decent-but-not-great $367.4 million during its run in theaters, meaning that it is Miller's silver medal directorial effort behind those dancing, singing penguins in the number one spot. It's hard to make this stuff up. But, as they say, truth is often stranger than fiction.

The lessons contained within

The thing that sticks out to me like a sore thumb in taking all of this in is the personal journey for Miller as a filmmaker. The man had been trying for years and years to get "Fury Road" made, ultimately serving as a big-budget, commercial passion project for him that seemingly had the world working against it. Yet, in 2001, producer Doug Mitchell presented an early draft of the screenplay for "Happy Feet" to the then-president of Warner Bros. Alan Horn during an otherwise uneventful meeting, leading to a green light for that film instead.

At a time when Miller's dreams of revisiting the Wasteland were caving in once more, he got the money to make a movie that had been kicking around his head for decades almost by accident. That, in turn, after five years of hard work, resulted in the biggest hit of his entirely strange yet amazing career. And that honestly probably helped get "Fury Road" made by Warner Bros. several years later. Not to mention the upcoming prequel, "Furiosa." If ever there were an encapsulation of the chaotic beauty that is the movie business, this may well be it.

I generally try to stay business-y and sensible with my lessons here, but as a man who only finds himself typing these words to you fine readers as a result of similarly fortuitous happy accidents – albeit on a much smaller scale – I feel the lesson here is a broadly applicable life lesson. Don't be too rigid with life's plans. Point your compass in a general direction that feels correct, and don't be afraid to head where the wind carries you. As evidenced by the remarkable success of "Happy Feet," good things can happen if you do.