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  • Writer's pictureCollin Souter

eFilmcritic Archive: "Happy Feet" (2006)

“Happy Feet” is a big, wondrous, happy movie. It reminded me of how lucky I am to be alive at this point in time to witness just how far we’ve come with regards to technology and how it has helped filmmakers and artists to tell particular kinds of stories. By now, we should all be incredibly jaded and not the least bit surprised when we see a computer animated movie that looks this beautiful. Yet, every once in a while something will come down the pike and blow my mind with just how much we can do and how much filmmakers still have yet to conceive. “Happy Feet” does this while going several steps further with its storytelling, execution and overall adventurous spirit.

George Miller directed “Happy Feet,” his first directorial effort since 1998’s “Babe: Pig In the City.” Both films overflow with visual wonderment and elaborate action set pieces that boggle the mind. Miller possesses an endless amount of imagination for a director who has been making action movies and dramas for the past 30 years (he’s responsible for all three “Mad Max films). There seems to be no stopping him. Miller fills every world he creates with astonishingly rich detail while taking chances with the material.

Some would say, though, that this time around Miller treads familiar territory. Admittedly, there exist many parallels between “Happy Feet”’s storyline and that of the first “Babe movie. Both films center on outsiders with uncommon talents. Babe the Pig wanted to herd sheep. The protagonist in this film, Mumble (Elijah Wood), is a penguin who can’t sing like all the other penguins, but who can tap dance better than any of them. Babe inadvertently brings the animal world and the human world together by showing off his talents and by just being a good-natured soul. So does Mumble. In both films, there are many rules and a natural order to how things work in the animal world and to break these rules would be frowned upon, maybe even catastrophic.

In this world, every penguin has a heart song, a song that everyone can sing, celebrate and enjoy. Because Mumble cannot sing, he has no song of his own. His voice resembles that of Jim Carrey’s “most annoying sound in the world” from “Dumb and Dumber.” Since penguins have not yet discovered tap dancing, they look upon him as a freak of nature. As he gets older, he has a hard time fitting in, but gets much support from his mother Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman). Not so much, though, from his father Memphis (Hugh Jackman), who can’t help but feel a sense of shame and disappointment in his son.

But Mumble forges ahead and joins up with the other penguins his age for a journey across the tundra of Antarctica to search for fish. On the way, he tries expressing his true feelings for his childhood sweetheart Gloria (Brittney Murphy), who has the most beautiful singing voice in the land. After interrupting one too many songs with his own voice, Mumble becomes an outcast. Soon he walks alone and eventually meets up with a group of shorter, feistier penguins (two of which are voiced by Robin Williams) who accept him and treat him as one of their own. A cataclysmic event brings the penguin world in touch with the human world and a quest for answers regarding these “aliens” pushes the narrative into slightly darker and unpredictable territory.

This sounds like a lot to cram into a 98-minute animated film, but you’d be surprised by just how much breathing room the movie has to warrant the occasional dance number, all of which have more weight, more energy and more style than anything in “Dreamgirls.” The animators clearly studied the footwork of professional dancers and applied the nuances with staggering detail. The sequences have been edited and constructed with such precision and care that I wouldn’t be surprised if there occurred a rise in the amount of kids signing up for tap dancing lessons after seeing this film.

This goes double for the action sequences and the film’s overall look. Unlike, say, the “Ice Age movies, “Happy Feet applies a rich tapestry of color and design to create a world that actually looks fantastic, while also having an organic feel. The blue water that surrounds the icebergs is a deep, dark blue and looks absolutely freezing. The wide shots of thousands of penguins dancing bring to mind the shots in the “Lord of the Rings” movies of Sarumon looking over his army. It’s an exhilarating sight, one I can’t wait to see on IMAX.

But “Happy Feet” will likely elicit some criticism for a couple things for which I do find fault with regards to many animated films made these days. Much of the music comes from radio standards by Prince, Stevie Wonder and other pop stars instead of creating new songs for the penguins to sing. I can understand people having a problem with this, but since the pop culture references stop there and don’t dominate the rest of the movie, I had an easier time accepting it. The writers don’t spend too much time trying to work in jokes that only adults will understand. Even Robin Williams, who has become a cliché in casting for animated ventures, doesn’t dominate his three roles with his own brand of shtick. You know it’s him, but this time it’s not about having him there.

“Happy Feet” is about a lot of things and has a lot on its plate. I don’t consider this a fault, but an advantage over several animated films this year that have been about little more than animals being smart-asses. Miller and his crew infuse the movie with so much visual splendor, heart and emotion that it ends up being one of the richest moviegoing experiences I’ve had all year. Its messages concerning identity, change and co-existence with those different from you will not miss children’s ears, either. So, really, what’s not to be happy about?

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