4 1/2 stars
It’s being promoted as a musical which may turn off the older crowd who aren’t interested in seeing another Lion King, but despite the fact that there are penguin versions of songs by Prince, Queen, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and many others (actually sung by some big pop stars like Chrissie Hynde, Pink & Brittany Murphy as well as actress Nicole Kidman) Happy Feet is fun. It’s not just about a little penguin who was hatched feet first and likes to dance because he’s happy. There’s a reason for the singing and it’s more than just to be all cutesy, although the kids will love it for that. Inspired in part by the outrageously successful documentary March of the Penguins, the singing comes from the fact that Emperor Penguins have a “heartsong”, a recognizable, distinguishable voice that they use to call out to each other when the father and mother are separated from one another during hatching season while the mother fishes and the father looks after the egg, and in most cases the hatchling, until the mother gets back.
In this case, the mother is Norma Jean (Kidman) and the father is Memphis (Hugh Jackman) who bears a slight resemblance to The King. The couple produce an egg, which Memphis does a little hip shake during the incubation period and accidentally drops his poor little egg on its head. When the egg does finally hatch, he comes out a tap-dancing fool, happy as can be. His name is Mumble (Elizabeth Daily as young Mumble; Elijah Wood as the older Mumble) and he can dance well enough to put Astaire, Kelly or Hines to shame…but the boy can’t sing. This, along with hatching late and keeping his downy feathers long after his fellow hatchlings have molted make him the oddball and outcast. It makes it a little difficult for him to get anyone to take him seriously or to get the girl of his dreams, Gloria (Murphy). It also proves to be his undoing as the elders believe that the Great Guin has taken their fish due to the curse bestowed on them by Mumble’s existence.
Mumble leaves and finds the Rockhopper Penguins after an extremely close call with a Leopard Seal. He stumbles into a group that seem very Latino lead by Ramon (Robin Williams). When Mumble learns that he’s not such an outcast here, despite his size, he has fun and excitement until he finds proof of “aliens.” They decide to go ask the great guru, Lovelace (also Williams) who knows of the “aliens” but won’t give a straight answer. Lovelace is also the narrator of this story.
Mumble goes back to his family to win Gloria and to tell the elders what he knows of the fish shortage. He’s ousted once more but he swears he will return with an answer. He and his buddies cross the dangerous frozen ice and wastelands, through the Elephant Seals (which has the late Steve Irwin playing a part) and makes it to an abandoned refinery. They are involved in another terrifying attack and then they come across their first close encounter of the third kind. Mumble begins to find the answer to why their food and habitat is endangered. For Williams, it’s probably a story much like being in Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest once again.
The movie also features the voices of many well-known Latino comedians as well as the likes of Anthony LaPaglia and Elijah Wood’s old buddy from The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Hugo Weaving. It’s directed by George Miller (Babe, Lorenzo’s Oil) who took motion capture to a new level with real actors portraying the penguins and then animating over them. Not to mention the combination of taking animation and real world photography and combining the two for some breathtaking scenes that almost make you wonder where animation ends and the reality begins as we see beautiful mountains, snow blown ice drifts and rolling waves. The blending of the technologies is quite superb and helps to get the point across in this movie that it’s more than just a silly little song and dance, but that the penguins and the Antarctic are vulnerable.
Sure I could’ve lived without some of the songs, but overall, Happy Feet had a lot of laughs, a good story and a good message.