Happy Feet Review
Rarely has a film's opening been so fortuitously timed as Happy Feet. This computer-animated comedy about penguins arrives in the wake of Madagascar, a computer-animated comedy which was stolen by penguins and, of course, March Of The Penguins, the smash hit documentary about the flightless birds. Penguins are big right now (well, they are adorable!) and family audiences are surely primed to see a penguin comedy. In fact, there are two coming out: the competing Surf's Up is due to open next summer but Happy Feet reaches cinemas first.
It's coincidence rather than cashing in. Happy Feet started production long before the Emperor Penguins of the Antarctic had become movie stars. It's also a terrific movie in its own right and it's surely the family film to see this Christmas season.
The happy feet of the title belong to Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), a young Emperor Penguin born to proud parents Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman). It's the film's charming conceit that penguins attract a mate by singing to each other - not just squawking, actually singing. Each penguin has a heart song and it's this song that will win them their perfect mate. The selection of songs is just one of the many fun touches - they range from Sinatra to Prince.
Mumble doesn't have a song. He has another gift - a knack for dancing. Unfortunately his fellow penguins aren't impressed by his nifty footwork and Mumble becomes a figure of fun, his only friend being the lovely Gloria (Brittany Murphy). The flock's elders disapprove strongly of the youngster - they blame his unpenguinlike behaviour for angering their god and causing their supplies of fish to dwindle - and he's eventually sent away. Befriending some members of a neighbouring breed of smaller birds (two of which are voiced by Robin Williams), Mumble takes it upon himself to find out what's really making the fish disappear and prove his worth to his flock.
The director is George Miller, who made the Mad Max trilogy and produced another film about cute, talking animals: Babe. He's the latest example of the current trend for live action directors to try their hand at making a computer-animated movie. Robert Zemeckis had a big hit with The Polar Express and Luc Besson's effort, Arthur And The Incredibles, is due in February.
Miller's attempt is much more successful than Zemeckis's. The Polar Express spent so much effort on trying to reproduce normal, human characters with computers that it was anyone's guess why they didn't just use actors. Happy Feet does use some similar tricks, like mapping the movements of human dancers onto penguins, but it's far less chained to mundane, real-world physics. Miller has an animator's instinct for how much to exaggerate. Instead of looking at odd approximations of human beings, we're looking at penguins with personalities and we accept them. There are human beings in the film - they're amusingly believed to be aliens! - and Miller integrates real actors into the action rather than try to fake them.
Happy Feet is spectacular to watch. Its sweeping Antarctic landscapes and its detailed creatures are absolute marvels to the eye. There's always something to look at, from the glorious icy vistas to the perfection of the penguins' beaks. The occasional little flaw, like the unconvincing splashes the penguins make when they hit the water, doesn't detract much from the film's technical achievement. Among the visual treats are some wild action scenes, in which Mumble and his pals escape the jaws of killer whales and leopard seals. Even better are the knockout musical numbers - the Boogie Wonderland number really does stop the show.
Perhaps more important than its looks is Happy Feet's heart. It's a sweet film with a story that has a real emotional hook and characters that are easy to like. The voice cast serves the movie very well. Elijah Wood is ideal as Mumble while Brittany Murphy comes alarmingly close to making a penguin sexy and proves she's been wasted in most of her live action roles. Robin Williams, not for the first time, steals the film playing two of Mumble's eccentric pals. His running commentary on a key romantic scene had me in fits and it's a perfect example of the screenplay's light touch.
There are messages here - be yourself, accept people's differences, stealing penguins' fish is bad - but to their credit, Miller and his fellow screenwriters (Warren Coleman, John Collee and Judy Morris) don't beat us over the head with them. They assume we have the intelligence to work them out for ourselves and there are no smug lessons about how we must learn to paint with all the colours of the wind.
While Happy Feet is aimed primarily at kids, don't be put off seeing it. It's the kind of animated film like Cars and Over The Hedge that will play to adults too. I saw it with a grown-up and reasonably rowdy Saturday night crowd. Five minutes in, they'd shut up and were laughing along with the film. When the credits finally rolled, the audience stayed quietly in their seats and watched the dancing penguins. Regular cinemagoers will know how scarcely this happens and how much of a compliment it is.
Happy Feet, which is largely Australian-produced, is dedicated to the late, lamented Steve Irwin. He appears in a small role, voicing an elephant seal.