November 17th, 2006
If "Happy Feet" looks likes a toe-tapping, fluffy penguin delight of a movie to you, you're only half right. What Warner Brothers is failing to mention in their marketing is the robust environmental message the film holds, along with other subversive inklings. It darkens the mood of the semi-pleasant film considerably.
Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) is a cheerful penguin born without the treasured ability to sing, but he can tap dance unlike anyone in his community of performance-happy flightless birds. Immediately labeled an outcast, Mumble leaves his group, hoping one day to return to his family (Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman) and his object of desire (Brittany Murphy). Accepted by a group of smaller penguins (including Robin Williams), Mumble begins to learn more about the famine that is plaguing the land, and sets out to find the truth behind reports that “aliens” are looking to destroy the penguins.
“Happy Feet” is perhaps the most well-intentioned film you’ll find this year, but also one of the most schizophrenic. The fine folks at Warner Brothers marketing have focused their efforts on the frothier performance and sassmouthed penguin characters to rope in clueless audiences, carefully neglecting to mention that “Feet,” underneath its rainbow exterior, is a very gloomy CG-animated endeavor with a sledge-hammered message to impart.
“Feet” starts off with a toe-tapping bang. Making his animated debut as a director, George Miller (the mastermind behind “Mad Max,” ”Babe,” and “Lorenzo’s Oil”) slathers on the cute and cuddly as we’re introduced to these peculiar penguins and the outsider adorableness of Mumble. Miller isn’t screwing around here, and since, at this point, we don’t know where the film is headed, the director succeeds in positioning Mumble and his special, hopping heart to a place of rapturous likeability, mimicking the Pixar way of conducting family film business.
“Feet,” in what has become a regular occurrence, ups the ante again in CG-animated dexterity. This is dazzling film (it’s a crying shame that the planned IMAX 3-D release was scrapped recently), and Miller knows it. He captures the white grandeur of the snowscapes well, and turns the underwater kingdom into a ballet of furiously swimming penguins darting around each other. The director gets carried away trying to arouse excitement with some seriously unhinged camera work that takes the viewer on a nauseatingly bumpy, swirling ride. Still, Miller can’t ruin the fluffy details of the penguins and the ambitious splendor of Mumble’s trek across the glaciers.
The picture doesn’t feature much of a story, but instead presents a series of messages to ponder on the blind faith of religion, the importance of individuality, and the overfishing of the Antarctic. Feel free to read that last item twice. Mumble and his penguin bros run all over the snowbound Earth, cracking jokes and evading predatory danger, but it acts as filler to Miller, who is simply biding his time until he unleashes a sobering third act that will chill the blood and make you wonder where all the happy feet boogied off to.
As Mumble gets closer to solving the mystery of just who is stealing all the fish, Miller takes the nuance and patience of the environmental messages and sets them ablaze. Without giving too much away, Mumble eventually finds himself in penguin captivity hell (shades of Miller’s wayward “Babe” sequel). This leads to a “did I just see that?” live-action montage where the leaders of the free world debate the issue of overfishing. This being a picture for all ages, things do not stay dark for long, but the damage has been done, and no amount of penguin hoofing for the closer is going to return this film to cute.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, especially after watching a lighthearted cinematic experience that mashed up “March of the Penguins” with “Moulin Rouge.” Miller unquestionably has his heart in the right place, and this definitely is an ecological subject that doesn’t easily find discussion; however, stuff it into a film where Robin Williams rocks a Mexican accent, and Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman lustily duet to Prince’s “Kiss,” and you can see how jarring the neck-snap of Mumble’s reality and Miller’s subversive intentions is.
“Happy Feet” dances up a storm, but instead of smiles, Miller’s cloudy creation will surely elicit blank stares from duped parents and head-spinning confusion from little kids.
My rating: C