"I heard an animal once do that, but then they rolled him over, he was dead."
– Ramon, describing Mumble's singing voice (Robin Williams)
Review By: Mark Zimmer
Published: March 26, 2007
Stars: Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman
Other Stars: Hugo Weaving, Anthony LaPaglia, Magda Szubanski, Steve Irwin, Chrissie Hynde
Director: George Miller
MPAA Rating: PG for some mild peril and rude humor
Run Time: 01h:48m:47s
Release Date: March 27, 2007
DVD ReviewDirector George Miller first made his name with antisocial apocalyptic visions such as the Mad Max movies, then surprised everyone with the shift to kids' movies by producing Babe and directing the sequel Babe: Pig in the City. Miller introduced a fair amount of darkness to that picture, and while he continues in the kids' genre with this charming penguin musical, it too contains dark elements that may be too much for younger children.
The success of March of the Penguins probably made them the inevitable subjects of a cartoon feature, and this (almost) entirely CGI picture makes good use of the birds' charming and awkward characteristics. The story centers on Mumble (Elijah Wood), an unusual Emperor Penguin who is unable to sing, and thus unable to generate the Heartsong that will allow him to mate and be a happy member of the penguin community. Instead, he is compelled to tap dance, which just does not fit in with the penguin model of society. Driven away by the girl penguin he loves, Gloria (Brittany Murphy) as well has his parents Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and aged leader Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving), he meets up with a group of miniature Adelies, led by the fast-talking Ramon (the fast-talking Robin Williams). Not only does Mumble find acceptance among the Adelies, but he learns some vital clues to the alien abductors who seem to be depopulating the seas of fish.
Part movie musical, part cautionary environmental tale and part plea for understanding of differences, the script really tries to take on a bit too much to be entirely satisfying. As a result, the picture runs a bit long to hold the attention of the less patient. Instead, there's an awkward attempt to hold interest with a hyper-kinetic camera that sweeps at dizzying speed, especially during the penguins' jet-powered swimming sequences. That's not to say that Happy Feet doesn't carry with it some important messages; it's just that there are so many of them that it's almost as if they're struggling for primacy before the environmental message wins out. Along the way there is plenty of condemnation of xenophobia, racism, religious mania in the face of facts, and failure to accept others due to their differences. As mentioned above, Miller introduces plenty of darkness, especially after Mumble is taken captive and placed in a zoo; I was half expecting the movie to have a finale reminiscent of Brazil.
The movie has two things going for it: a great soundtrack and some excellent characterizations. The soundtrack uses the old-style movie musical technique of taking existing songs and stitching them into the story; this works best in the first scene as Memphis and Norma Jean perform their mating ritual and in the various Heartsongs that the penguins offer up to each other. The characters are generally quite appealing, though there are some odd choices. Modeling Mumble's parents on Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe is kind of amusing as a concept, but there isn't much done with that after the opening. Robin Williams' pidgin Hispanic character will probably end up being one of those horrifyingly embarrassing portrayals a few decades from now, something like a minstrel show character would be today. Those extremes are hardly necessary, since the less colorful characterizations (such as Mumble, Gloria and Noah the Elder) are quite acceptable and make an impression. But the show is stolen by Anthony LaPaglia's turn as a bullying yet cowardly bird, pompous in his association with the alien abductors.
It's an certainly attractive enough movie, with the penguins being presented in a mildly stylized caricature that takes them just outside the realm of reality. Differentiating penguin characters is obviously a tough chore, but it's accomplished reasonably well here. Mumble is easy, since he's treated as never quite having grown out of his hatchling fuzz even in adulthood. Others are less successful; I had trouble picking out Gloria in a crowd at times, even when she was talking or worse, singing. There are a number of scenes of danger including jumps from very tall heights that should not be imitated.
Rating for Style: B+
Image Transfer Review: The HD transfer is, as one would expect for a CG film, extremely attractive. The snow in particular looks very realistic, and the amount of detail in the feathers of the birds (especially the fuzz of the hatchlings) is first rate. The blues of sky and sea are often almost overwhelming. It's a topnotch presentation, in the same territory as The Corpse Bride in HD.
The standard DVD anamorphic widescreen side also looks quite good, athough a bit of ringing is visible against the sky at times; this could be edge enhancement or a compression artifact. There's still plenty of detail and bright, vivid color, but the feathers don't quite pop off the screen to the same extent.
Image Transfer Grade: A
Audio Transfer Review: The HD DVD features DD+ versions of the English, French and Spanish soundtracks, which are not hugely different from the standard DD 5.1 tracks on the DVD side. Both have plenty of bass and excellent range and directionality. The difference is mainly audible in the TrueHD track, which has a more open and expansive soundstage that really lights up the music. But no one should be disappointed in any of these excellent tracks.
Audio Transfer Grade: A+
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 28 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
5 Other Trailer(s) featuring Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Fred Claus, Imax: Deep Sea 3-D, The Nativity Story, Nancy Drew
2 Deleted Scenes
Extras Review: The most interesting features are a pair of deleted scenes. The longest is a tribute to the late Steve Irwin, who was originally retained to play an albatross in this deleted scene, but finally wound up as an elephant seal in the finished picture. There's also a 31-second "Happy Feet Moment" that seems a little ill-tempered. Both of these scenes are presented in HD, but other than the trailer none of the rest of the features are in HD. The story of a bird who is not accepted by his family for his odd behavior has its roots traceable to the Merrie Melodie cartoon I Love to Singa (1936), featuring Owl Jolson (which got a new lease on life through its legendary use in the pilot and first episode of South Park). Alas, it's not in HD, but it's still nice to see this gem again.
Dance Like a Penguin (5m:21s) features dancer Savion Glover, who gives the viewer a few quick tap dancing lessons. A pair of music videos for Hit Me Up and The Song of the Heart feature footage from the movie. The movie's trailer is on both sides, but five additional trailers for upcoming Warner motion pictures are found only on the standard side.
Extras Grade: B-
An overambitious movie that tries so hard that it falls a little short. There's plenty of entertainment and action amidst the many messages, though, and the transfer is beautiful.