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Happy Feet (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 17 November 2006
Easily one of the best movies of 2006, “Happy Feet” is probably not quite what you’re expecting. First, it was in production long before “March of the Penguins” was released—though I suspect it may have been modified a bit afterward. Secondly, yes, it’s another talking animal movie in a year crowded with them—but this is different from and better than the others; it’s hardly just for kids. And it’s also an actual musical with lots of (familiar) songs and tap dancing. In fact, the central idea is a penguin, Mumble (voice of Elijah Wood), who expresses himself with his tapping feet.

In this story, Emperor penguins sort themselves out, male and female, by their songs—not the harsh squawks we hear, but full-blown songs. Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) sings Prince’s “Kiss,” attracting a lot of suitors, but she’s drawn to down-home boy Memphis (Hugh Jackman), who rocks her world with “Heartbreak Hotel.” Once they’re paired, an egg results; the females leave the males in the interior of Antarctica and set out for the coast and fish.

A harsh winter comes and goes, and afterward, the eggs hatch out. But Memphis was a bit careless, letting his egg get away from him for a moment, so it’s delayed a little in hatching. The fluffy gray chick that emerges is dubbed “Mumble” by another chick. When the penguin chicks are rounded up to be told how to be Emperor penguins, poor little Mumble can’t sing at all—but he can tap-dance up a storm. Everyone kind of looks the other way.

But when the chicks, except for late-hatched Mumble, achieve their full adult black-and-white splendor and dive into the sea for the first time (actually Mumble is the first one in), and then start to divide up by their “Heartsongs,” Mumble is left out. The stern, tradition-bound elder (Hugo Weaving) banishes him from the penguin tribe—he claims that Mumble’s dancing is what has driven away the fish that are the penguins’ sole source of food. Mumble has to leave his parents and childhood playmate Gloria (Brittany Murphy), now grown; he’s attracted to her, but she sadly turns aside because of his lack of a song.

Mumble has some adventures; he meets a quintet of Adelaide penguins led by Ramon (Robin Williams), who are, peculiarly Mexican-accented. After a scary encounter with a leopard seal, the five take Mumble back to their own tribe. A rockhopper penguine, Lovelace (also Williams), is considered a masterful seer, mostly because of the plastic six-pack loop around his neck.
This encounter and others lead Mumble to believe that the “aliens” who were responsible for Lovelace’s “talisman” may be the cause of the decline in fish. So he, the five Adelaides and Lovelace set out beyond the land of the elephant seals (one of which is voiced by the late Steve Irwin) to find the aliens. We know they’re human beings, but the penguins have never seen one.

On one level, “Happy Feet” is a very standard outsider-from-his-tribe tale, like “Dumbo,” which invariably conclude with him being found essential to the tribe. This is frequently reinforced by a female he likes who has to shun him until the last reel or so. But in “Happy Feet,” Gloria was warmed up to Mumble by the time the film is little more than half over—and that’s because “Happy Feet” has bigger fish to fry.

The movie was directed by George Miller, of “Mad Max”/”The Road Warrior” fame, but don’t forget he also wrote both of the “Babe” movies, the stories of the “sheeppig.” He doesn’t make movies very often, but he’s clearly a master of his craft; in its editing, choice of camera angles and movements, and sheer scale, “Happy Feet” is far more cinematic than the vast majority of CGI-animated movies. You never have the feeling, as you can with other such films, that choices have been dictated by avoiding scenes that are just too epic.

Here, not only does Miller use vast, sweeping panoramas of the unearthly beauty of Antarctica, but he doesn’t shy away from scenes featuring literally THOUSANDS of penguins, hundreds of elephant seals and the like. There are many scenes of beautiful animation, often choreographed, as in the fledged penguin youngsters’ joyful ballet (to a Beach Boys tune) when they first dive into the frigid sea. Their wakes leave lines of bubbles which they intersect and weave together in swift, stunning patterns. Mumble first learns of the aliens from a few skuas, carnivorous gulls intent on eating him (their leader is voiced by Anthony LaPaglia), and they’re animated in a surprisingly realistic, frightening fashion. When Mumble and his friends finally reach the lair of the aliens, he and Lovelace fall into the sea, where they have a strikingly-designed encounter with a pair of hungry killer whales.

The CGI is lavish; notes claim that some of the Emperor penguins are covered in several MILLION feathers. The sky is occasionally draped with the Southern Lights; rarely has CGI water been rendered so realistically. The computer graphics are so good, in fact, that when human beings appear at the end of the film, it took me a while to realize that they were live action, and not especially good CGI.

I wasn’t familiar with all of the songs, and familiar songs turn up in peculiar contexts: the five Adelaides sing “My Way” in Spanish, for instance, and “Leader of the Pack” is a slow-tempo dirge. The elephant seals, all with Aussie voices (including Steve Irwin, one of the people the film is dedicated to), and splendidly animated—they look as meaty and heavy as these big seals really do. But there are lots of songs, and the music is used beautifully.

The actors are all very good; unsurprisingly, Robin Williams, who does two voices and narrates, gets most of the very funny lines, but “Happy Feet” isn’t about jokes and gags. There are no kaka-peepee joke (and just one fart joke), there are no setups and payoffs; this, like Miller’s “Babe,” takes its characters very seriously and treats the audience honestly. What joys and thrills it brings, it comes by honestly.

By introducing human beings, the movie slowly becomes, among other things, an earnest, heartfelt comment about man’s stewardship of the world. As one reviewer pointed out, this would be an unlikely but appropriate double bill with “An Inconvenient Truth”—even though it is primarily about a tap-dancing penguin.

The dancing was done by Savion Glover; he was fitted with a motion capture suit, hobbled slightly so he moved more like a penguin, and photographed for the CGI animation. It works like a charm, far, FAR better and less obviously than in “Polar Express.” The movement of the animals is otherwise more realistic than in most other talking-animal movies; in this regard, it’s far more comparable to “Bambi” than to, say, “Over the Hedge.”

If there’s any real flaw, it’s that at 98 minutes, it may be just a little long for this kind of film, but the stunning visuals, numerous characters, a wide variety of voices and the intelligently handled shift in the story compensate.

Don’t underestimate “Happy Feet,” and don’t look around for a kid to take just to have an excuse for seeing it. This is for everyone, with no concessions made for kids or for adults. There are a few odd bits, as with Nicole Kidman slightly doing an impression of Marilyn Monroe and Hugh Jackman of Elvis, but this isn’t intrusive, it’s merely decoration. This is a beautiful, joyous film, deserving to be seen on the big screen (it’s playing in IMAX in a few locations) in as lively and responsive an audience as possible. “Happy Feet” is a happy occasion.

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