The opening moments of Happy Feet gave me a sense of déjà vu. Thousands of emperor penguins waddle around Antarctica in a straight line, eventually gathering at a common area to find their mate. These are the exact same images that we saw in 2005’s March of the Penguins. Well, except for the singing and dancing.
Yes, that’s right…singing and dancing. This has to be one of the strangest movies I’ve ever seen, animated or otherwise. We immediately meet two penguins – the Elvis-like Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and the Marilyn-esque Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman). At first, they look like normal penguins until they spontaneously burst into Prince’s pop classic “Kiss.” We are told that all penguins possess a “heart song” that guides them to their mate. How any of them have heard Prince is not explained. Or maybe they somehow heard the Tom Jones remake.
Memphis and Norma Jean get together and produce an egg. While she’s on a trek to find food, he accidentally drops the egg. When the baby penguin, named Mumble (Elijah Wood), is born, he looks a little different than the other penguins and he can’t sing at all. However, he sure can tap dance. In fact, he dances much like famed hoofer Savion Glover (who, through the miracle of motion capture, provided Mumble’s top-tapping moves). He also emerges from his egg speaking fluent English. Amazing. Since emperor penguins are (apparently) supposed to sing and not dance, Mumble becomes an outcast.
For the first 45 minutes, Happy Feet doesn’t really seem like it’s going anywhere. The movie gives us a series of entertaining, but mostly unconnected, sequences: Mumbles is chased by an underwater predator; he meets a predatory bird who describes his abduction by aliens (i.e. humans) who have put a plastic tag around his leg; he and some other penguins face an avalanche and fall off a cliff; potential love interest Gloria (Brittany Murphy) leads everyone in a rousing rendition of “Boogie Wonderland.” All these scenes are visually dazzling and fun to watch; they just don’t seem like they’re adding up to much.
And then things get really odd. The penguin elders, upset that the fish supply is running low, blame Mumble. They think his dancing is offending the penguin god, who is taking away the fish in retaliation. The rejected Mumble then heads off on his own and runs into another tribe of penguins, all of whom have Hispanic accents. (Robin Williams provides the voice of one.) They take him to see a fat penguin named Lovelace (also Robin Williams) who has convinced everyone he’s a servant of the penguin god simply because he’s got an old plastic six-pack ring stuck around his neck. He joins Mumble and his new friends in search of the aliens (again, humans) who are responsible for decreasing the food supply.
If I’ve spent more time describing what happens in Happy Feet than I normally do in a review, it’s because I want to give you a sense of how flawed the story is. As you can hopefully tell, the plot is all over the place. It starts off being a happy-go-lucky animated film about singing/dancing penguins. Then it becomes a borderline religious parable. Then, in the home stretch, it pulls an ecological message almost out of nowhere. I’m not sure if the filmmakers ever figured out exactly what kind of story to tell, so they crammed about three or four different concepts together. Consequently, Happy Feet never really feels like it’s in focus. It shifts directions a few times too many.
While I wish it had been more solid in its story, I still like the movie and recommend it. There’s enough here that’s great to offset the shakier stuff. For starters, this may possibly be the most breathtaking animated film I’ve ever seen. The visuals are absolutely spectacular. I sat there watching them in sheer wonderment. Happy Feet clearly represents the next big breakthrough in computer animation. The arctic environments are realistically rendered, and from a visual standpoint, the penguins look real (when they aren’t singing and dancing, that is). Then there are the musical numbers which…well, sure it’s a silly idea, but when I saw thousands and thousands of penguins tap dancing, I really fell under the movie’s spell. Somehow it all looks so amazing that you can easily surrender yourself to its charm.
Director George Miller brings the same visual energy and sense of movement to this animated film that he brought to his classic action extravaganza The Road Warrior. The camera swoops, and dives, and spins in a way that captures the grandeur of Antarctica as well as the majesty of emperor penguin rituals. (Your appreciation of this movie increases if you’ve seen March of the Penguins.) The dancing scenes rival anything from Hollywood’s classic musicals. CGI animation is growing more sophisticated each year, and Happy Feet left me astonished by its visual beauty.
I need to add that although the movie’s many bizarre elements don’t add up to anything significant, many of them are amusing on their own. I liked the wacky Lovelace, and the action sequence involving two whales, and a lot of the film’s humor. Also, my foot was tapping during the musical numbers. Happy Feet is not the best animated film of the year (that would be Monster House) but in terms of the visuals and the fun quotient, it is certainly worth seeing. Despite some weak story elements, the movie did indeed make me feel happy.
( out of four)
DVD Features: The Happy Feet DVD comes, as you would expect, with some fun special features. Most notable are two new fully animated additional sequences, “Mumble Meets a Blue Whale” and “A Happy Feet Moment.” The former is especially noteworthy as it contains late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin in his original role as an albatross. (When the story shifted course during production, he was recast as an elephant seal.) The scene proves to be a loving memorial to a man who brought joy to millions.
Also on the disc is a feature called “Dance Like a Penguin: Stomp to the Beat” in which dancer Savion Glover provides a few elementary dance steps for kids (or their parents) to try. Next is a section of music videos from the film: Prince’s “The Song of the Heart” and Gia’s “Hit Me Up.” Last, but not least, is a vintage Looney Tunes short called “I Love to Singa.” The cartoon has little to do with Happy Feet, save for some thematic similarities (it’s about an owl who sings jazz against his parents’ wishes), but it’s a gem. Somehow, I had never seen this one before, despite being well acquainted with classic WB ‘toons. It’s nice to own this lost treasure.
Perhaps the best recommendation of the Happy Feet DVD is the obvious one: kids will want to watch it again and again, so you’ll get your money’s worth. And because of the great animation and joyous musical numbers, the adults in your household won’t mind repeated viewings either.
Happy Feet is rated PG for some mild peril and rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.
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