HAPPY FEET (George Miller, 2006)
The emperor penguins in HAPPY FEET sing in MOULIN ROUGE medleys to find their spouses. What's a penguin to do if his singing voice is like nails on a blackboard?
That's exactly the dilemma that Mumble (voice of Elijah Wood) finds himself in. There's no way a female will be drawn to his screechy heart song, but boy can he tap dance. Unfortunately, his inability to sing and penchant for toe-tapping make him an outcast with the other birds. While in the egg, Mumble was accidentally exposed to the frigid air. His father Memphis (Hugh Jackman) takes the blame for Mumble's difference, but his disappointment makes it hard for him to accept his boy unconditionally.
Mumble's talents with his feet rather than his voice draw suspicion from the elders. The fish supply shrinks, something which the council believes is due to Mumble being an offense to their ways. Mumble sets out to learn why their food source is becoming smaller as well as discover himself.
HAPPY FEET'S animation is nothing short of spectacular. The frozen home of the emperor penguins is rendered in stunning photorealistic CGI. The flightless birds and other Antarctic residents are beautifully animated too. A sequence in which Mumble and his new friends plummet over an icy edge and slide down and around the terrain is as thrilling as any live action setpiece you're likely to come across.
Director George Miller works overtime to entertain, although such ends rarely seem effortless. A preponderance of mashed pop songs may trick some into thinking this is a frivolous children's movie, but the messages pile up fast and furious. The visual elegance is not reflected in the screenwriting.
HAPPY FEET is a didactic movie that takes on religious fundamentalism and addresses environmental concerns. There's nothing saying that entertainment for kids can't be substantive, but the film's hard sell against belief in the supernatural and for ecological care are simple-minded and preachy. Perhaps it's reading too much into HAPPY FEET, but is Mumble's difference from the pack simply a way of encouraging kids to be comfortable with who they are or suggestive of a lesson in accepting those with racial or sexual identities outside the majority? These thematic elements are bold choices for a movie about singing and dancing emperor penguins, but they don't mesh very well.
As a technical achievement, HAPPY FEET is a seriously impressive film. It's also seriously weird and will probably freak out younger viewers. (The subwoofer gets a particularly vigorous workout, which led to many crying children when I saw it.) Parents are better off taking the kids to FLUSHED AWAY for some holiday moviegoing. The animation may not be as groundbreaking, but it's wittier and has less insistent messages.