Happy Feet (2006) / Animation-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for some peril and rude humor
Running Time: 87 min.
Cast: Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Steve Irwin, Fat Joe, Anthony LaPaglia
Director: George Miller
Screenplay: Warren Coleman, John Collee, George Miller, Judy Morris
Happy Feet is one of those movies that I will acknowledge is technically impressive, and it does work on the level it is intended, but you have to be ready to receive its interminably cute, feel-good charms -- this dessert is saturated with fat and sugar. An Australian production, the film sports a fantastic look and sound, with a bevy of recognizable names among the vocal talent, and plenty of good music that gets "penguin-ized" at regular intervals throughout the film. Young and old might leave the theater with a smile, but, boy, does it ever lay it on thick, especially as the film draws to a climax with an ecological message to humankind to show some care for their feathered friends in Antarctica.
The story revolves around Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood, Everything is Illuminated), a young emperor penguin who is ostracized by the rest of his brethren because he doesn't know how to sing. Instead, he expresses himself through dancing, using his happy feet to make music of their own by tap-dancing on the icy ground. As Mumble grows up, he becomes fixated on Gloria (Murphy, Sin City), a beautiful singer in his group that he can't get close enough to because his singing is so poor. After he is split from the group, Mumble encounters another group of penguins, who like his dancing enough to befriend him, and they help him try to find a way to gain acceptance in his own colony.
I'll freely admit, many of the reasons to recommend Happy Feet reside primarily in the "bells and whistles", with some very good animation, nicely presented, and directed in a very competent fashion by veteran director George Miller (Babe: Pig in the City, The Road Warrior). If you've seen any of the trailers or ads for the film, you know what to expect: plenty of cute penguins singing and dancing pop/R&B tunes, acting irreverent, and doing what they have to do to keep us smiling in the audience at their antics. I think that, even if the fil had no plot or moral, this probably would have been a successfully entertaining film for most attracted to films with a great deal of singing and dancing. It's so feel-good, it's almost toxic.
The downside to the film is that it does eventually have a plot and a moral. Initially, it seemed as if the film was about Mumble being different and unaccepted (he is different, he likes to dance, he has adoration for the diva, his parents are disappointed he can't be like the other birds -- you draw your own conclusions as to what it's about), which one can forgive for being typical family film fodder. However, the makers of Happy Feet eventually take the film entirely into a different direction when it becomes a heavy-handed appeal to stop fishing in the Antarctic region, as the poor starving birds must beg humankind to stop stealing their food source so they don't all perish. Not only is this message delivered with the subtlety of a sledgehammer, it is somewhat distastefully handled, and the tone for it isn't set up properly from the onset. It feels like it belongs in a different, much more serious film, and the enjoyment factor dips substantially during these overwrought scenes of penguin captivity. It gets its message across, I suppose, but really, the underlying message of the film is that human beings should protect any creature on Earth that we find to be cute and/or entertaining; the rest of the animals (like the fish the penguins eat) can all die.
I have strong mixed feelings about Happy Feet, enjoying it for the way it is presented, and even liking its attitude from time to time, but the annoyance factor is certainly high if you aren't impressed by scene after scene of cloyingly precious penguin action. If the ecologic message could have been more rooted into the plot of the film, and especially not treated with such harshness, this also would make the film a bit more palatable, as young children might feel a bit distressed during the later scenes of imminent danger to all of the characters they have grown to love. For what it's worth, we get what we pay for -- CGI penguins singing, dancing, and making us happy -- is that the only reason they deserve to exist in this world? Not sure, but I can tell you, it's the only reason they exist in this movie.
©2006 Vince Leo