Happy Feet

Nov 29, 2006 at 12:00 am

If the Academy of Motion Pictures established a schizophrenic-film-career award, George Miller would surely qualify. Creator of all three Road Warrior films, the Australian physician-turned-filmmaker briefly flirted with Hollywood (Lorenzo's Oil, Witches Of Eastwick) before reinventing himself as a maker of kid's flicks. Both Babe, and its woefully underappreciated sequel, Babe: Pig In The City, were unexpectedly iconoclastic and heartfelt works.

Happy Feet is Miller's first foray into computer-generated animation, and the visual results are nothing short of astonishing. The film's frosty landscapes are a spectacular blend of real-world photography and computer animation. Rolling arctic waves, icy snowdrifts and shifting ice floes are rendered with breathtaking detail and clarity. The character creations are equally ambitious. Taking motion-capture technology to a new level, the all-star cast of Hollywood actors performed as their penguin counterparts before the animators went to work. If you ever wondered what Elijah Wood looked like with fluffy down and a beak, this is the film for you.

Where Happy Feet falters is in its awkward storytelling. Mumbles (Wood) is a happy-go-lucky Emperor Penguin with a strange handicap; unable to perform his "heartsong" — something all penguins must do to attract a mate — he expresses himself through dance. In fact, his fancy footwork could give Fred Astaire a run for his money. Still, his mother (Nicole Kidman) worries he'll be unable to find a wife, and his father (Hugh Jackman) struggles to hide his shame.

Shunned by the other penguins, Mumbles strikes up a friendship with Ramon (the overused Robin Williams) and his posse of Latino penguins — who think his taps and shuffles are muy cool. With their help, Mumbles wins the love of Gloria (Brittany Murphy) only to have the flock's leaders blame his un-penguin-like ways for their dwindling fish supply.

Determined to prove that the shortage is not divine retribution, he goes on an expedition with his newfound friends and their guru, Lovelace (Robin Williams again), to find the "aliens" responsible. Across dangerous wastelands, through the land of elephant seals (one of which features the voice of the late Steve Irwin) and along Orca-infested shorelines, the brave little birds discover the true reason their food supply has become endangered.

With its neo-biblical narration and elaborate song-and-dance numbers, Happy Feet plays like a gospel-tinged merger of Moulin Rouge and March of the Penguins. It's an unlikely mix — musical, love story, adventure film and spiritual parable — and Miller can't quite pull it all off.

Though the dance numbers impress — particularly a number set to Queen's "Somebody To Love" — the film's first half is weighed down by an overly episodic setup. One vignette crashes into another and it's hard to see where things are headed. At times, long stretches of exposition threaten to derail the story before it gets going. Luckily, a catchy score, some brilliant choreography and magnificent eye-candy liven up things.

Once Mumbles takes off on his quest, the story shapes up nicely and Miller's unabashed notions of hope and responsibility kick in. What's surprising is how unafraid Happy Feet is to express its spirituality. From the God-like "Guin" that appears in the clouds to dramatic tropes like plagues, pilgrimages and prophets, the film is brazenly allegorical. Adults may cringe at its simplified message of environmental sensitivity, but the kiddies will buy it hook, line and sinker.

Happy Feet's highly realistic location work is further enhanced by Miller's ever-gliding camera. He directs as if it were a live action, using long pans and extreme close-ups to create a fully cinematic experience.

Perhaps the film's greatest conceit is its translation of penguin mating calls into infectiously joyous music. From Elvis to Sinatra to Prince to the Beatles, the animal's heartsongs are expressed through catchy pop classics. Complementing these dazzling musical numbers are thousands of dancing penguins — with Mumbles' unmatched taps (courtesy of Savion Glover) tearing up the permafrost.

If there's one thing Happy Feet can't be criticized for, it's a lack of ambition. Sweet, commanding and consistently engaging, filmmaker George Miller has spared no expense to bring us his audacious vision of peaceful coexistence.

Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].