|Happy Feet (2006)
Starring: voices of Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, Hugo Weaving
Director: George Miller
God bless George Miller. He’s completely out of his tree, of course – we’ll let “Babe: Pig in the City” serve as Exhibit A in that trial – but he’s a maverick, with a flair for taking a conventional framing device and turning it completely on its ear (“Mad Max,” “The Witches of Eastwick.”). It is that unique vision that led us to give “Happy Feet,” an animated film about the Emperor penguins, the benefit of the doubt. He surely has something special up his sleeve for it, right? Oh, boy, does he. Bar none the most visually stunning animated movie you’re likely to see for years to come, “Happy Feet” has a free spirit that most animated features don’t even dream of, no doubt out of fear of losing the fast food merchandising tie-in. The problem, though, is that it tries to do way, way too much, and the movie ultimately loses its way, though not before scaring the bejeezus out of a gaggle of small children in attendance. Seriously, parents, there’s some frightening stuff in this movie. Exercise some caution.
The movie begins with the penguin Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman) singing her “heart song” in hopes of finding a mate with a song that appeals to her. (The ensuing melding of lines from various pop songs into one big mash-up recalls Kidman’s bit with Ewan McGregor in “Moulin Rouge.”) The winner of her heart is Memphis (Hugh Jackman), an Elvis-belting stud, and they have a son named Mumble (Elizabeth Daily as a child, Elijah Wood as an adult). Mumble is a good kid, but due to some extra time in the cold while still in the shell, he’s developed what you might call a condition: he can’t sing – which makes it pretty much impossible that he’ll find a mate – but the kid can dance like nobody’s business, much to the dismay of both his father and the elder statesmen of the tribe, who consider Mumble’s uniqueness to be a curse. Still, Mumble is determined to win the heart of Gloria (Brittany Murphy), which will be no mean feat since she has one of the loveliest voices of all the penguins. Yes, we’ve heard Murphy sing, and acknowledge that she has a pleasant if unspectacular voice. It’s a movie, go along with it.
Miller assembles some dizzying shots that range from panoramic to falling-down-the-rabbit-hole intense in a matter of seconds. And when those scenes involve sea lions, prepare for some thrilling stuff (the “skiing” scenes are pretty awesome, too). The problems arise when the movie leaves behind its “Babe”-like fable about letting your kids be who they want to be and decides to fry bigger fish, as it were. The way in which the elders rule the tribe through unconditional obedience and fear (the introduction of which is late in the proceedings, and therefore rather jarring), and cast out Mumble for his “strangeness,” brings to mind the Salem witch trials – or “Footloose,” one of the two – and heaven help the movie when it tries to play the environment card. The message it appears to be sending is that it is okay for all other walks of life to eat fish, but it’s not okay if humans do. This led a movie critic colleague to ponder, “No one seems to be sticking up for the fish, huh?” True, that. Oh, and the supposed fight between Mumble and Gloria is the fakest, most manufactured argument in movie history.
Still, it must be said once again that despite its many and varied flaws, “Happy Feet” is a visual marvel, the kind of movie that will have every other animation house slapping their foreheads and saying, “Why the hell didn’t we think of that?” It’s just a pity that the movie wasn’t content to balance its dazzling visuals with a simple-but-effective story, and instead decided to take on the world, only to die in vain. Miller gets points for moxie, but loses points for not sticking the landing. And also for falling off the beam midway through the routine.
This is a pretty bare-bones affair for what was one of the most successful animated films in a year stuffed to the gills with animated films. The most touching extra features director George Miller finishing a scene featuring the late Steve Irwin as a seagull acting as translator between Mumble and a blue whale. Other features include music videos for Gia and Prince, a dance tutorial from Savion Glover, but the best extra bar none is the classic cartoon "I Love to Singa" (yep, the one with the jazz-loving owl in a family of classicists). Pity that Miller couldn't find time to do a commentary, since his movies are so few and far between.