Director: George Miller
Cast: The voices of Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, Hugo Weaving
MPAA Rating: (for some mild peril and rude humor)
Running Time: 1:38
Release Date: 11/17/06
Review by Mark Dujsik
A movie like Happy Feet works primarily on its adorability factor. A penguin chick tap-dancing may not be the cutest thing ever, but it is pretty gosh-darned adorable. Add to it the stunning backdrop of Antarctica rendered in beautiful CGI and a few appealing musical numbers, and there's certainly a formula for harmless fun. "Aws" abound as penguins waddle around, a constant smile on all their faces, breaking into song and dance to find their true love and raise a family of more singing and dancing penguins that waddle around and have developed the evolutionarily pointless ability to smile. Yes, as my friend said, they're just a bunch of ones and zeroes, but the ability of animators to turn nature's flightless birds into lovable, profitable Happy Meal toys—er—characters amazes me. While the cute formula is its strong point, the major problem the film has is in formula, as the screenplay moves from one familiar point to another, unclear of where to focus, and ending up at a trite message of eco-harmony. In spite of its rambling, ultimately cloying storyline and having to overcome an initial feeling of unnatural creepiness, though, Happy Feet is an entertaining, sometimes visually striking piece of animation.
Memphis and Norma Jean (two Australian actors, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, doing voices in American South dialect) meet and mate in the penguin way. She sings, he sings, their songs unite, and they make an egg. After Norma Jean goes off with the other females to fish for the season, Memphis is left with the males to guard and warm the egg. After getting too caught up in his own singing, he accidentally drops their egg—a big, big no-no—but manages to recover it. The eggs hatch, but it takes Memphis' a little longer than the rest. The chick's feet emerge first, leaving the rest of him in his egg and earning him the name Mumble. Norma Jean returns to find that her son also has an odd, swaggering way of walking and that he cannot sing. As hard as he tries, Mumble cannot learn to sing, but he is able to soft-shoe with the best of them, a trait he must keep quiet, lest other penguins find out. As he grows up, older Mumble (voice of Elijah Wood) is still an outcast amongst his peers and the rest of the waddle—even with a bowtie-like coloring on his neck—but he makes a potential connection between the recent lack of fish and aliens beyond their shores.
So we have an outcast storyline, a mystery, and a love story involving Mumble and Gloria (voice of Brittany Murphy), the only penguin who seems to get his dance habit. Fortunately, there are no evil villains here, although attempted attacks by a group of skuas (including one who was abducted by the aliens), a seal, and a pair of killer whales provide a few moments of action. Mumble, an Emperor penguin, also exiles himself to a colony of Adelie penguins, who gather pebbles for nests and for some odd reason all speak with Hispanic dialects. It's here we meet two characters voiced by Robin Williams: Ramon, the head of a group of Adelies who befriend our hero called the Amigos, and Lovelace, a Rockhopper guru with a plastic six-pack ring around his neck who may know more about the aliens. Williams earns some laughs with these characters, but it's pretty typical comic sidekick stuff. Elijah Wood isn't given much to do either, although his frequent displays of Mumble's lack of musical talent are quite amusing. On a vocal level, only Hugh Jackman stands out as an Elvis-esque penguin.
In terms of character, the Antarctic backdrop is the star. Full of minimal settings of pure white and water, the background design is somehow colorful nonetheless. There's a scene of Gloria singing a cover of Queen's "Somebody to Love" against the Southern Lights that's breathtaking. Yes, this is primarily a musical. Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" plays an important role to Mumble's dance training, and two Beach Boys songs play for moments of his growing up, of particular effectiveness is a penguin chick choral rendition of "In My Room." Williams' Spanish rendition of Sinatra's "My Way" is also quite funny. It's somewhat surprising the format works, especially after the first number involving Norma Jean wooing potential mates with Prince's "Kiss" comes off more troubling than cute, but it does. The choreography by Kelley Abbey is effective even in computer animated form, and this is due mostly to the fact that motion-capture was used to achieve dancing penguins. Hoofer Savion Glover performs Mumble's moves, and once again, the mo-cap transfers over incredibly well to the flippered tap-fiend. Real humans also play a part later on the movie when Mumble discovers the aliens, in a move that actually works better than an attempt to create animated people.
The ecology moral of Happy Feet is definitely preachy and comes almost out of nowhere. The movie itself, though, does seem a commentary on human behavior. We do seem to have a strange habit of only caring about the environment if cute animals are in danger, and that's what it takes here for the aliens to stop their evil ways. Hence, we have a movie about adorable singing, dancing penguins to make us aware that real non-singing, non-dancing penguins are potentially in danger. Maybe if they had said this was inspired by a true story, people might take that message to heart, or maybe that's just the cynic in me talking.
Copyright © 2006 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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