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“Happy Feet” is an odd bird. It’s a CG-animated film with a “Dumbo”-esque story about an emperor penguin that unlike other penguins can’t sing worth a lick but, boy, can he tap dance. Right from the start, though, you are aware that the Australian director George Miller and his talented artists are aiming for something more than a charming children’s cartoon.
In the barren, hostile Antarctic wilderness where these hardy yet somewhat comical birds make their home, Miller is unafraid to go for what can only be described as a neo-biblical epic. In his depiction of a plague and a pilgrimage, a God-like penguin appearing in the sky, the portrayal of the story’s hero as a prophet rejected by his own kind and even the gospel orientation of several songs, Miller boldly reaches for spiritual themes.
Happily, it all works. Miller and his co-writers Judy Morris and Warren Coleman plug in enough action sequences — where penguins tumble down towers of ice and frantically escape predators and flee avalanches — to entertain younger viewers. The many musical numbers are brilliantly choreographed and orchestrated through some of the best motion capture ever employed in a cartoon. And the film often astonishes you with the three-dimensionality of its frozen landscapes. With smart marketing, Warner Bros. Pictures has a solid entertainment that should sweep across many demographics. Nor does it hurt that last year’s “March of the Penguins” educated so many moviegoers to the extraordinary world of empire penguins.
Mumble (Elijah Wood) is a cheerful penguin despite his “handicap.” But his dad, Memphis (Hugh Jackman), worries, even as he hides the secret of his son’s strangeness from his mom, Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman): Memphis accidentally dropped the egg from its nest within the folds of his feathery flesh during a winter storm. So when Mumble is hatched, he cannot perform his “heartsong,” the identifying croon peculiar to every penguin to attract a mate. Instead, his webbed feet break out into tap dancing. Mom is delighted, but Dad insists, “It just ain’t penguin.”
Singing lessons end in failure, but Mumble’s “hippity-hoppity” ways still attract his childhood friend, Gloria (Brittany Murphy). Then, in his rambling adventures, Mumble runs into a group of Latino penguins, the Adelie Amigos, who convince him that his dancing is actually cool.
A drought in the fish supply causes Noah (Hugo Weaving) to interpret this as divine retribution for Mumble’s un-penguin ways. When Mumble refuses to change those ways — he has an unshakable sense of who he is — he is forced from the flock and goes on a pilgrimage with the Amigos, led by Ramon and Lovelace the Guru (both characters voiced by Robin Williams, who also narrates the movie) to find the “aliens” (i.e. humans) whose overfishing has interrupted the food supply.
Miller has made a number of wise choices in how to convey his biblical/penguin tale. The animals’ heartsong might sound like noise to human ears, but to a penguin it’s music. So why not turn “Happy Feet” into a quasi-musical featuring classic pop songs from disco and Queen to Sinatra, Prince and the Beatles?
For the tap dancing, why not go to a virtuoso, Savion Glover, to “play” Mumble to dazzling effect through motion capture? Choreographer Kelley Abbey works with other dancers in groups so that the screen fills up with thousands of dancing penguins, seemingly with their own distinctive styles.
Research expeditions by camera crews to Antarctica result in a highly realistic landscape with enough texture, light and shadows that you can feel the cold. Miller moves his camera all the time and “setups” go from close-ups to extreme long shots, giving “Happy Feet” a greater “movie” sense than animated films usually have.
There also is a wonderful jokiness to much of the film, from the various ethnic and national accents of the animals to the way the musical numbers reflect the film’s moods. It’s not a riotous joke-athon like “Flushed Away,” but for all its serious themes “Happy Feet” never forgets that, after all, the movie is about dancing penguins.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures presents in association with
Village Roadshow Pictures
a Kennedy Miller Prods. production in association with Animal Logic Film
Director: George Miller
Screenwriters: George Miller, John Coll ee, Judy Morris, Warren Coleman
Producers: Doug Mitchell, George Miller, Bill Miller, Zach Nalbandian
Executive producers: Graham Burke, Edward Jones, Dana Goldberg, Bruce Berman
Co-directors: Judy Morris, Wrren Coleman
Production designer: Mark Sexton
Music: John Powell
Choreographer: Savion Glover, Kelley Abbey
Supervising sound editor: Wayne Pashley
Supervising art director: David Nelson
Layout/camera director: David Peers
Editors: Margaret Sixel, Christian Gazal
Mumble: Elijah Wood
Ramon/Lovelace: Robin Williams
Gloria: Brittany Murphy
Memphis: Hugh Jackman
Norma Jean: Nicole Kidman
Noah: Hugo Weaving
Boss Skua: Anthony LaPaglia
Running time — 108 minutes
MPAA rating: PG
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