Happy Feet

Warner Bros. Ent.
George Miller/United States 2006

Penguins like to party. Who knew? When French filmmaker Luc Jacquet presented us with the distinguished documentary March of the Penguins, he forgot to show just how much Emperor penguins enjoy music. No worries – George Miller’s new animated feature Happy Feet clears that issue right up. Emperor penguins are singing sensations.

Well, that is except for poor young Mumbles (voiced by Elijah Wood). The underdeveloped son of two of the colony’s most musical members, Mumbles cannot sing. He can only squawk most horrendously when he attempts to let his “heart song” emerge through his mouth. But, Mumbles can dance, and dance he does.

Wait a minute, you say. A penguin musical?

Yep, Miller and crew deliver an animated song-and-dance film that harkens back to the days of “classic” Disney features structured around song. The only difference here is that the animation has become so realistic in certain places that it’s almost scary. A scene in which Mumbles and his friends encounter elephant seals on the ice, for example, seriously attests to the developments in digitally creating image for the screen. (And, I must add, this scene may be the first in film and children’s story history to depict seals as downright vicious creatures. And it is scary.)

The story of Happy Feet slightly echoes that of the 2003 animated hit Finding Nemo: an outcast member of an animal community breaks from his over-protective family only to learn of the dangers in the animal world created by human civilization. Unlike Nemo, though, Mumbles voluntarily enters human territory in an attempt to convince these “aliens” to stop harvesting fish in Antarctic waters. After all, the penguins are all starving.

Mumbles is inspired to go on this journey when he is exiled from the Emperor colony for disturbing social order with his dancing. The elder leaders claim that such behavior has offended the great Emperor penguin god, who is now punishing the colony with a famine. Despite the protests of his mother (voiced by a wispy-breathed Nicole Kidman) and the stern appeals from his father (a drawling Hugh Jackman) to abandon his atypical urges as well as his new “foreign” friends (a gang of party-happy penguins from another local species, led by the voice of Robin Williams’ Latin lover Ramon), Mumbles renounces his growing romance with the lovely-voiced Gloria (Brittany Murphy) in favor of proving the Emperor elders wrong.

The story is simple, the music is fun and the dancing is unlike anything else captured on film. I mean, when did you ever expect to see penguins moving and shaking like club-goers on a Saturday night? Despite the spectacle value of Miller’s feature, however, the notable racial, religious and political overtones contained with the narrative offer more intellectual substance for those inclined to ponder the construction of filmic story. In short, Happy Feet, like any good mass-oriented family film, has something to offer everyone.

It left me, at least, pondering just what it is about dancing that is so fascinating to people. When you see this film – which you should – you’ll know what I mean. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you’ll get to watch small children dance in the aisles at the end, too. That’s almost cuter than the penguins.

© 2006 Lydia Storie. All rights reserved.

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