Directed by George Miller. Voices by Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Anthony LaPaglia. (2006, PG, 108 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Nov. 17, 2006
Before jumping to any hasty conclusions that the animated new film Happy Feet represents a cynical plundering for profit of the popular success of last year’s documentary March of the Penguins, think again. In production for four years, work on Happy Feet was already under way at the time the 2005 documentary was also being filmed. Who knew that we would turn out to be a nation hooked on penguins? (The release of this new penguin picture will likely demonstrate the accuracy of this depiction of our love for these dramatic- yet comical-looking animals.) Also working in its favor is that it's directed by the Aussie filmmaker George Miller, the creative talent behind the universally delightful Babe movies (he scripted and produced the original and directed, produced, and scripted the follow-up). Happy Feet treads material common to kids films and cartoons, most notably Dumbo: A young animal stands out from his herd or flock because of his inability to perform like the other animals, although he seemingly compensates for this defect by demonstrating a certain skill that sets him apart from the others, who ostracize him for his weirdness. Young Mumble the penguin (voiced by Wood) cannot find his heart song (which we're told here as in March of the Penguins is unique to each penguin and necessary to finding a mate). Horrible croaks emerge from his beak instead of tuneful melodies. Yet he spontaneously tap-dances like, well, like Savion Glover (whose acclaimed footwork was filmed through motion-capture techniques and grafted onto the penguin's body). His mom, Norma Jean (Kidman), and dad, Memphis (Jackman), like his dancing, as does Gloria (Murphy), the young female penguin who takes a shine to the unique penguin. However, Noah (Weaving), the leader of the tribe, banishes the adolescent Mumble from their midst, holding the penguin's peculiarities responsible for the recent fish shortage that's been driving the group toward starvation. The exiled Mumble embarks on a journey to discover the source of their interrupted food supply, and along the way he finds reinforcements in a Latin gang and the guru Lovelace (Williams, who also voices one of the gang members and narrates the story). Together they search for the "alien annihilators," the ones who bestowed Lovelace with his "talisman," a plastic six-pack container ring circling his neck. The film's ecological themes, while present throughout, come into the fore here but steer clear of the more complex questions such as whether humans should disobey their doctors and harvest and eat less fish. The constant singing and dancing throughout is charmingly presented, and the CGI re-creations of Antarctica are stunning, allowing the film to shift among glorious long shots of the ice and penguin population and midshots and close-ups of the character interactions. The chase sequences and the elephant seals might prove a bit scarier than what some of the younger viewers might be ready for, and the opening and closing sections of the film are a little bumpy getting in and out of the overall story. Still, you'll most probably find yourself raising your flippers in praise of Warner Bros. flightless fowl.