November 12, 2006
By JIM SLOTEK, TORONTO SUN
New CG kids' eco-fable a star-studded, song & dance number
LOS ANGELES — First he gave us a live talking pig, now he's giving us computer-generated talking penguins.
So it makes sense to ask Australian director George Miller — the director of Babe and the new Warner's CG children's eco-fable Happy Feet — which he prefers working with.
"Well, it's obviously easier working with computer-generated animals," Miller says earnestly at a press conference with voice-over stars Elijah Wood and Robin Williams.
"They're friendlier too," offers Wood, who voices Mumble, the oddball penguin who sets out to solve the (human-caused) disappearance of the annual Antarctic fish bounty.
"And people don't eat computer-generated animals," Williams chimes in. "Cyberpork is not very filling."
It's that kind of press conference. Williams, who has two roles in the film — a tough little Argentinian penguin named Ramon and a Barry White-inspired preacher-bird named Lovelace — accesses his inner-Ramon through most of the session answering every other question in a Latino accent.
"Come closer, let me talk to joo," he tells a female reporter, "and when I say 'joo,' I do not mean that in a Mel Gibson way.
"Oops, sorry George," he says, in a glib aside to Miller.
Miller, of course, has directed a trio of Mad Max movies with Gibson. And Mad Max 4 was a 'go' when a series of events had him taking a left turn to Penguinland for three-plus years.
"We were about to start Mad Max 4 when George Bush and Tony Blair decided to go into Iraq and the American dollar collapsed against the Australian dollar and we lost 25% of our budget. Warner Brothers had the script for Happy Feet, and they said 'We can't wait too much longer.' I'm happy to have done it. I spent time in my home city (Sydney), got to take the kids to school and had an incredible learning experience."
(As for Mel, Miller says Mad Max 4 is still on his plate, and will shoot after two other films are wrapped).
A mammoth undertaking that included two Antarctic field trips for template shooting, and dense with era-spanning, chart-topping music and dancing, Happy Feet is set among a horde of Emperor Penguins (yes, the same species from March Of The Penguins). It tells the story of Mumble, the son of two of the best "Heartsong" singers in the flock – the Elvis-voiced Memphis (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and the Marilyn-inspired Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman).
Maybe it was a little "accident" Memphis has with the egg in the dark Antarctic night when Norma Jean is away with the other females looking for food, but Mumble is born somewhat "off." He doesn't develop as fast as the other penguins, and he has no "Heartsong," the music the birds develop to differentiate each other for mating.
What he does have is an ability to tap dance (motion-captured for the movie by Savion Glover of Broadway's Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk, who doubles as the film's choreographer). Unfortunately, the penguin elder (The Matrix's Hugo Weaving) sees "getting down" as demonic, blames Mumble for the disappearance of the fish, and banishes him.
What follows is a mission to save the world, with Mumble and a merry band of 'Adelie Amigo' Penguins (Williams and a quartet of Latino comics including Jeff Garcia, Lombardo Boyar, Carlos Alazraqui and Johnny Sanchez III), fighting off vicious leopard seals and braving 100-below Antarctic storms.
Just don't go looking for Mr. Frodo metaphors. "There are as many similarities as you'd like to put into it, I guess," says the Lord Of The Rings star, practically sighing audibly. "They both have big feet," Williams suggests of Mumble and Frodo.
"Sometimes I felt like we were making Lord Of The Rings," Miller adds. "I like stories that follow the hero myth, it just happens unconsciously with me. We had epic landscapes and it took a long time to make — although (he says directly to Wood) you guys made three films in the time it took me to make one."
Happy Feet is dense with pop music, from Beatles (Golden Slumbers sung by k.d. lang), Queen (Somebody To Love, sung by Wood's female lead Brittany Murphy) and Beach Boys tunes, to bits of Sir Mix-a-lot, Prince, and the Brand New Heavies' Jump N Move, with a chorus of divas that includes Patti LaBelle, Fantasia Barrino and Pink.
"We spent a lot of time talking about music," says Miller. "We went for iconic music, from having to differentiate between the penguins by giving each one a song specific to themselves. Who's more iconic than Elvis, for example, or Prince?"
In fact, Miller scored a bit of a coup with the artist formerly known as 'The Artist Formerly Known As …' The songs Sign Of The Times and Kiss both had their lyrics rewritten, with rare permission by the artist. "Prince never changes the lyrics to his songs, and Gary LeMel (from Warner Music) said 'If he ever saw the movie, he'd see it was appropriate.' They went to Minneapolis, showed him the movie, and apparently he picked up his guitar, started strumming and said 'Give me two weeks.' And he not only let us change the lyrics, but he gave us this beautiful song, The Song Of The Heart, for the end. And I thought 'Wow, he likes the movie!' "
Williams says the call-to-eco-action in this ultimately-hopeful movie was a major motivation to do it. "Both poles are turning into a pool, areas the size of New Zealand and New Hampshire have melted. And industrial fishing affects everyone, it's like hunting squirrels with a bulldozer, basically destroying large populations of fish throughout the world."
Voices of Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Hugo Weaving
Directed by George Miller
Into the world of the Emperor Penguins, who find their soul mates through song, a penguin is born who cannot sing. But he can tap dance something fierce!