BY STEVEN ROSEN / SCREEN DAILY / 13 NOVEMBER 2006 /
Dir: George Miller. US. 2006. 98mins.
Happy Feet is one strange bird of an animated movie. Directed by George Miller, who was behind Babe (1995) and its badly-received sequel, it is by turns giddy, maudlin,swinging, narratively overstuffed and artistically magnificent as it makes the case — not always in jest — that penguins would have a better chance of survival if they learned to tap dance.
It would seem primed to do massive business because of its sense of spectacle, environmental message and all those cute penguins. But Happy Feet has a couple of Achilles’ heels that may keep it more grounded than its selling points suggest. In particular, its lead character Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), an outcast young penguin who needs to prove his courage, feels somewhat bland and not really the master of his storyline.
As a result, children may not be able to relate to Mumble as they did similarly motivated animal characters like Simba in The Lion King (1994), which took $784 million worldwide, $329 from the US. Happy Feet also struggles to maintain a similar comic tone and warmth to this year’s Ice Age 2 ($646 million worldwide, $195 million from US), despite the presence of big-name comic talent like Robin Williams. But the snowy cartoon should still play well in the run-up to Christmas both domestically — it opens in the US on Nov. 17 — and overseas.
Certainly Happy Feet will be boosted by the fact it is about penguins, currently the animal kingdom’s biggest stars, as witnessed by two of last year’s strongest family films: documentary March Of The Penguins, which took $122 million worldwide; and Madagascar, which earned $194 million of its $529 million global box-office from the US.
Happy Feet opens in an emperor penguin colony where the young have to learn to sing to communicate with their mates. While young Mumble has a terrible voice, he can at least tap dance like Fred Astaire, to the disappointment of his Elvis-like dad Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and loving mom Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman). His only kindred soul is his friend Gloria (Brittany Murphy), a great singer.
Mumble is determined to prove his worth to the colony and sets out on a quest, eventually meeting a Latino comedy troupe of smaller mambo-loving penguins led by Ramon (Williams).They worship Lovelace The Guru (also Williams), a heavy set, messily tufted Rockhopper penguin with a sexy Barry White-like voice and neck talisman that is really a plastic ring from a discarded six-pack.
When Lovelace falls ill, Mumble and crew decide to hunt for the “aliens” who created the ring, eventually encountering Man in a scene conjured from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
George Miller here seems inspired by Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge: at every opportunity, penguins — sometimes thousands at once — break into wild song-and-dance medleys of pop hits like Queen’s Somebody To Love, Prince’s Kiss, the Steve Miller Band’s The Joker and Grandmaster Flash And The Furious Five’s The Message. Sometimes the film’s voice talent does the singing — Nicole Kidman tackles Kiss; on other occasions, the soundtrack features guest singers like Chrissie Hynde.
The tap dancing is exuberantly choreographed by Savion Glover, whose own steps were recorded via motion capture, then digitalized. Overall, the gotta-see-it-to-believe-it scenes of dancing birds are infectiously ecstatic, but they occasionally feel bizarre and the uneven tone may throw some audiences.
In other escapades, Mumble runs into an elephant seal (voiced by the late Steve Irwin), an encounter that has shades of a Ray Harryhausen-orchestrated monster-movie confrontation. There is also an abandoned human settlement that features a church on a cliff, a stranded tanker and trash and debris everywhere. It proves somewhat haunting.
The digitalized animation is often breathtaking, especially considering that penguins, by their very nature, are not that colorful. Sydney-based visual effects house Animal Logic, working with production designer Mark Sexton and layout/camera director David Peers, has given the birds a detailed, sculptural roundness, although Mumble sometimes feels somewhat emotionless.
Antarctic backgrounds feature ice shelves, glaciers, icebergs, valleys and mountain ranges and are stunningly panoramic.
Main cast (voices)