Happy Feet (United States, 2006)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Happy Feet is a weird movie. No one can accuse director George Miller and his co-writers of playing it safe, but there are some genres - such as family-friendly animation - where adherence to conventions can be viewed as a positive trait. 75 minutes into the 105-minute movie, I thought I was watching the first great animated film since The Incredibles. The final half-hour disabused me of that notion. Taken in total, Happy Feet contains enough solid entertainment to be worth the price of admission, but the production's last act self-inflicted wounds do irreparable damage to what is an otherwise fine motion picture.

Happy Feet, the first of a wave of new animated movies starring the tuxedoed birds, takes us to the playground of the penguins, Antarctica. There, reenacting a sequence from March of the Penguins, the mothers go off fishing while the fathers stay behind and warm the eggs. When the fishing expedition if over, Norma Jean (voice of Nicole Kidman) returns home to her hubby, Memphis (Hugh Jackman). She then meets her baby boy, Mumble (Elijah Wood), who's a little abnormal. Instead of singing like most Emperor penguins, he dances. To exacerbate matters, when he tries to croon, the noise that emerges sounds like the death cry of some horribly injured creature. Convinced he has no chance to win the love of Gloria (Brittany Murphy), he leaves the conclave of the emperor penguins and hooks up with Ramon (Robin Williams) and his crew. They belong to a different species and are more open to Mumble's "happy feet." Soon, accompanied by his new friends, he sets off to solve the mystery of why the supply of fish has dried up, threatening to starve the penguins.

The first 2/3 of Happy Feet is standard animated stuff presented with lots of energy and verve. The penguins are cute (especially the chicks) and presented with enough photo-realism that they could at times be mistaken for their March of the Penguins counterparts. The musical numbers are lively, although some of the song choices are odd. (The big, showstopping numbers are "Kiss" and "Boogie Wonderland.") Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Nicole Kidman, and Hugh Jackman do their own singing. Where Happy Feet soars is in the inventiveness of the camera work. No previous animated film has done as much with the vantage point as this one, keeping things kinetic as it soars in for close-ups and zooms out for panoramic shots. There are first person action shots that zip through ice tunnels and down steep embankments. In large part because of the innovative way in which Miller has shot Happy Feet, it's always interesting to observe and often exhilarating to experience.

It's impossible to discuss Happy Feet without confronting the ending. The movie provides the feeling that the screenwriters, having written themselves into a corner, could only resolve the situation by employing a deus ex machina. While one could argue that's not a big deal in an animated movie, the way it's used here feels false even within the context of a story about talking penguins. The writing during the last half-hour is sloppy and borderline incoherent with grating transitions and unpleasant tone shifts. The inclusion of non-animated (live action) human beings is jarring. Happy Feet also offers a strong pro-conservation message - not a bad thing had it been handled better. As it is, it is presented with the subtlety of unanesthetized hammer-and-tongs dental work - dumped on viewers with a few moments' strident preaching. Oddly, it's so perfunctory that kids probably won't notice or, if they do, they will quickly forget. The way to get children to care about issues presented in animated films is to embed them in the subtext throughout the narrative, not do a core dump over a two-minute span at the climax.

The film's director is George Miller, who knows a thing or two about action and family oriented motion pictures. Miller was the driving force behind the popular 1990s features Babe (which he co-wrote and produced) and Babe: Pig in the City (which he directed, co-wrote, and produced). Earlier in his career, he helped launch Mel Gibson's career by with the Mad Max trilogy: Mad Max, The Road Warrior, and Beyond Thunderdome. For Happy Feet, Miller incorporates decades of experience. His movie runs on high octane and has widespread appeal.

Happy Feet ends on an upbeat note with singing and dancing, but the weaknesses that precede it deflate the euphoria. It's fair to note that many of the elements that bothered me about the film aren't going to be noticed by the under-10 target audience, and there are plenty of things sprinkled throughout for adults to enjoy. As usual, Robin Williams adds spontaneity and humor to the proceedings (including at least one line that had me laughing out loud). Because of the camerawork, the action sequences are not as pedestrian as is often the case in animated features. And the visuals are a cut above what we have been seeing in recent rushed-to-the-screen productions. The ingredients for greatness are there. It's too bad the movie lost its way on the approach to the finish line. I recommend Happy Feet, but not as enthusiastically as I wish I could.

Happy Feet (United States, 2006)

Run Time: 1:45
U.S. Release Date: 2006-11-17
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1