Happy Feet Review
Take an endearing species of bird and...well, I'm not sure how anyone arrived at Happy Feet. It's a Moulin Rouge-styled musical that sees a colony of lovely emperor penguins singing to one another in their courtship with each male and female of the species finding one another's song underneath the moonlight. They romance to a duet of rock and pop classics. Songs, dance numbers, comedy, ecological warnings and thrilling dives beneath the waters of the Antarctic make outrageous leaps across live action and computer animation without ever making an entirely agreeable whole, certainly much less with each penguin bursting into song or the tapping of penguins across the snow. Add to that the thoroughly unwelcome sound of Brand New Heavies, Chrissie Hynde, Boyz II Men, Ricky Martin and Salt'n'Pepa in amongst Prince, The Shangri-Las and Stevie Wonder and you have a film that has moments of madness in its choice of music. A madness that is, unfortunately, not of the kind needed to produce a great film.
One wonders who it is that will have as much of a liking for Elvis as they will for Salt'n'Pepa and who it will be that, in between Kiss, The Message and Leader Of The Pack, they'll hanker for Shake Your Bon-Bon, Jump N' Move and Let's Talk About Sex. Children are unlikely to have even heard of any one of the tens of songs that play in Happy Feet, and certainly not everyone, this viewer included, who had a fondness for Baz Luhrman's camping up of classic pop in Moulin Rouge will appreciate what's been done here. The beautiful sight of the aurora australis above the ocean is tarnished somewhat by Brittany Murphy's Somebody To Love, not the Jefferson Airplane song unfortunately, which is over the top even by the grandiose efforts of Queen. Robin Williams stamps an adopted accent all over My Way, which was, one thought, a difficult song to ruin while Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, so good in Flushed Away and Moulin Rouge, turn in a dog's dinner of a song in their cooking up of Kiss and Heartbreak Hotel. Saying that there's a DJ Unk in this film shows just how wildly inaccurate the intentions of this film is.
Against this comes Mumble (Elijah Wood), a fluffy little thing who's dropped onto the snow when still an egg and hatches without a note in his feathery head. Instead, he dances. Or taps, to be more accurate and he fair moves across the ice, somehow finding his own path in life against the urging of Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving) to sing. Noah's Scottish burr suggests a puritanical Calvinism amongst these penguins, leaving poor little Mumble and his squawking to be cast out to the wilderness, even as his father Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and mother Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) look away. But in spite of the adversity of living alone whilst barely out of the egg, Mumble meets five adélie penguin, Ramón (Robin Williams) amongst them, who put some zip in Mumble's moves and bump up his confidence a little. Together, the six of them bounce around the ice until on a collapse of the ice shelf into the ocean, Mumble watches a bright red digger fall into the water and disappear into the blackness of the ocean. It looks so alien...and alien is what Mumble assumes it to be, deciding that he needs to travel in search of these aliens to secure enough food for all of the penguins in the Antarctic. But as he watches the massive fishing vessels depart north, how can one little penguin do all of that?
You will note, if you've read that paragraph carefully enough, that there does seem to be quite a jump between the jollity of the early part of the film to the environmental warnings of the latter. Happy Feet does even out the cracks between these two halves of the story better than has been suggested above but there's clearly a blossoming of the story from the cosy twosome of Memphis and Norma Jean to a saddened Mumble living in a zoo and staring blankly into the lights that shine on his enclosure. The odd thing about Happy Feet is when it chooses to plunge into the darkness a little further, it does look wonderful. The turning of the Earth brings with it a leaving of the female penguins in search of fish whilst the males look after the eggs and in that long winter, Noah The Elder urges each penguin to share the task of braving the snow and winds over the long months. It's a wonderful scene, being bleak, beautifully animated and with a rich tone in the background, like a Welsh male voice choir standing firm against the winds. Elsewhere, Mumble's tracking of a modern fishing boat is superb, contrasting the little penguin with this enormous boat, against which he's dwarfed. There has been some criticism of this environmental message in the film and of these bleak moments, notably by Michael Medved but not only are these to be welcomed for that reason alone but for giving adults something to enjoy in between the songs, dances and frantic gags.
Still, as much as all of these two halves of the film fail to gel, it can be enjoyed so long as consistency isn't necessarily what you're after. There are moments in the first half of the film that are quite marvelous and there are some wonderful scenes in the last three-quarters of an hour but it proves as difficult for the filmmakers to marry them as it is for the audience to fail to see the joins. Or, at least, it is for an adult audience and with a handy couple of children of primary-school age to assist in any understanding of the film, it's a treat of a film. No, they don't care for The Shangri-Las, Queen or Grandmaster Flash And Melle Mel but it does, to their eyes and ears, look and sound tremendous, with the saving of the penguins resolving quite a difficult environment problem in such a fashion that it actually had the seven-year-old understanding Mumble's efforts and the difficulties faced by the penguins. And, as she and her younger brother would readily admit, penguins couldn't look any sweeter, which, regardless of the warnings about the over fishing of the oceans, is surely what Happy Feet is really all about.
Taken, one suspects, directly from the digital source, this looks terrific with such detail in the backgrounds that this viewer is wondering, as with the live action cast at the film's end, if the animated penguins have been cast against footage of the actual Antarctic. Happy Feet does sometimes look that good. The actual transfer is excellent with the picture looking very sharp, having a great use of colour and with beautiful-looking characters. There is not one blemish in the picture but one has some discomfort at seeing the animation, not only at how quickly it's stepping towards realism but in the odd sighting of live actors late in the film. At first, there's a marvelling that humans are being animated as well as they are before it becomes clear that they are actor who have been spliced into the CG backgrounds and alongside the penguins. I'm not sure this is an entirely good idea and though the DVD bears no fault in this, it's a curious thing to see.
The English DD5.1 EX is an excellent audio track, with the music and dialogue sounding clear against the ambient soundtrack. There's plenty of bottom end, heard to best effect with the collapse of an ice shelf into the water and in the passing of the fishing boat, whilst both those scenes also demonstrate the use of the rear channels effortlessly. Then again, the separation between the right and left channels is there to hear, particularly with the frequent use of songs when the soundtrack shifts to the front. Finally, there is not only English subtitles but also a very good Descriptive Audio track.
Mumble Meets A Blue Whale (3m19s): Before his death, Steve Irwin read for the part of an albatross in the film, who guides Mumble through his meeting a blue whale in the manner of an enthusiastic naturalist. Fitting, that. Irwin did make it into the film as a bull walrus but this bonus feature, which is introduced by George Miller, finishes the original scene, in which Irwin's albatross tells the little Mumble to go back home and to enjoy life.
A Happy Feet Moment (28s): Yes...all of twenty-eight seconds this one. Here a penguin, who might be Memphis - it is hard to tell them apart when they're not speaking! - picks up Mumble, juggles him about in the manner of a Hacky Sack and kicks him out to sea.
Dance Like A Penguin: Stomp To The Beat (5m21s): "Can you hear my body talking?" asked John Otway in the final episode of The Young Ones. "I'll bloody well make his body talk in a minute!" is what Vyvyan had to say on the matter. Choreographer Savion Glover, as he explains to us, gets his body talking as he talks the audience through the basics of tap dancing and how dance is just as much a means to communicate as painting, as writing and, yes, as singing, telling them, which might pass over the heads of more enthusiastic children, that it takes a long time to get as good as he is. Tap dancers, by that peculiar way they have to leaning into the dance, always look as though they're just about to fall over onto their faces and Glover is no different although, when he gets moving, he is impressively fast, even when Mumble shows up beside him and demands a dance number.
Creating The Tap (4m22s): Savion Glover is back to tell us that his feet are his instrument and George Miller pops up to agree. About Glover's feet, this is, and not his own. This short feature describes how the makers motion-captured Glover's feet and recorded it to build the character of Mumble and, as the film goes on, all those infected by the happiness of his feet.
Behind The Scenes (13m02s): This is a typical making-of, featuring director George Miller talking about the origins of the film and what messages, personal and environmental, that there are within it. All of the cast are here, particularly Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Elijah Wood, Robin Williams and Nicole Kidman, whose face looks like it might snap apart at any moment, and the glimpses that we have here of them in the recording studio spares us any separate The Voices Of... feature. None of this adds up to very much but it is fast-paced and does cover most of the ground that an audience, even a young one, might want from it.
Somebody To Love - Brittany Murphy (4m11s): Oddly, I've never been able to quite separate the Brittany Murphy who did the dirty with Eminem up against a piece of industrial machinery with the Brittany Murphy who's been busy doing voiceovers for children's films over the last few years. So it's a surprise to see her spruced up and introducing her version of the Queen classic, at which she's not at all bad, certainly with a better-than-expected singing voice and standing out against an impressive choral backing.
Finally, if you place this in your PC/DVD Drive, you'll get a web link but in doing so you might have to install the Interactual player. Having learnt from this before, I chose not to bother.
There's still no proof that any one of the animated feature studios formed in the last number of years is anywhere near close to catching up with Pixar, at least in producing consistently good films, but individual movies are catching up, not last Flushed Away and, in moments, Happy Feet. Perhaps the bonus features on this DVD aren't all that but the presentation of the film is a very strong one and that is largely what matters. It may be that the audience for Happy Feet is too old to appreciate the cuddly toy that a couple of online retailers are offering but it's a decent film on a very good disc. Spread it over a couple of nights and one doesn't even notice the gaps in the plot quite as much as one should.