Since audiences flipped over the documentary March of the Penguins (2005), there have been more penguins in the media than you can shake a seal club at. Because of this penguin mania, it was inevitable we would get a fully animated production in the form of Happy Feet.
Penguins have a heart song. This is their personal ad that helps them find a mate, keep warm in the scary winter, and express their individuality. Sadly, Mumble (Elijah Wood – and you will be amazed by how much that fuzzy penguin really looks and acts like Elijah Wood), is born devoid of a heart song. The kid can dance, though. Too bad dancing is completely frowned upon. Mumble journeys away from the flock and runs into a group of wild and crazy penguins who know how to have a wild and crazy time. This is exactly when the film turns dark, dark, dark.
This darkness occurs in all exceptional animated features (have we forgotten the gunshots and their targets in 1942’s Bambi?). Happy Feet is absolutely about finding your so-called heart song, but it is also about environmental disaster, human encroachment, border issues, homosexuality (discussed as arguments about the immorality of being different), and fighting the power. All these issues are deftly handled with humor and (usually) even-handedness. It isn’t hard, though, to see which side of the political fence the filmmakers lean on. If your six-year-old notices the political innuendoes, then, dang it, pat her on the noggin’ and be proud of your genius offspring.
What makes the movie a great work are the direction and animation. The chase scenes are so well imagined that young children are going to be scared. Those scenes are as close to being on a roller coaster as one can get. The incredible animation is revealed slowly but surely, building and building as the scenes unfold. Because of this, the initial reaction is that the animation is okay, but two-thirds of the way through the movie you will be asking yourself if the humans are animated or filmed (filmed). Finding the live-action segments to be this confusing is an amazing feeling. How do you get cartoon penguins (and I mean these are obviously cartoon penguins) seem so alive next to real humans? Answer: ridiculously well crafted animation. You may, however, tire of the if-a-blue-penguin-eye-fills-the-screen-you-should-feel-melancholy shot.
There are tons of popular songs in the movie (sitting through the music credits takes as long as sitting through Woodstock). Unfortunately, those songs are jim-jammed into any available moment without a whole lot of attention to efficacy or theme. I always prefer hearing original songs, and can only think of two examples of movies that used popular music to intelligent effect: Moulin Rouge (2001) and (yep, no joke) Muppets in Space (1999 – check it out if this bothers you).
The voice acting is mostly great. Robin Williams is excellent as two very different penguins. Hugh Jackman, on the other hand, gives the worst Elvis impersonation since my uncle’s parole hearing. The film is about penguins; penguins that sing and dance; penguins that sing and dance and are really fuzzy and adorable. It’s a no-brainer; get your children to Happy Feet.
Written by Jámon Y. Huevos