Ten and a half months after wading through a stream of mostly derivative animated releases"Cars
" and "Monster House
" being the two possible exceptions2006 finally has a surefire creative winner in "Happy Feet." A delightful musical, a witty comedy with no fart jokes (always a plus), and a heartfelt but surpisingly tough coming-of-age story, the film entertains while constantly reinventing itself with unanticipated story developments. Stacked up next to the recently released "Flushed Away
," there is flat out no contest between the two. "Flushed Away
" is forgettable, disposable and uninspired, while "Happy Feet" offers the chance for children and adults alike to expand their minds while drinking in the breathtaking animation and sheer imagination on display.
In a close-knit tribe of Antarctic Emperor penguins, Mumble (voiced by E.G. Daily as a child, Elijah Wood as the older counterpart) is born to parents Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) with what everyone considers abnormalities. As a means of finding and expressing their personal identity, each penguin is expected to have a heartsong that naturally comes out of them. No matter how hard he tries, though, Mumble has a screeching, squeaky singing voice and no song to sing. What he has instead is a talent for dancing and tapping with what he labels "happy feet." This diversion from the norm doesn't sit well with most of Mumble's elders and peers, who treat him like an outcast with no chance of ever fitting in or finding a mate. Teaming up with a friendly gang of latino Adelie penguins, a humiliated Mumble finally leaves his family, braving the rugged elements as he searches for the "aliens" he has heard about who may hold the answers to his problems.
Vibrantly directed by George Miller (1998's "Babe: Pig in the City
"), "Happy Feet" ventures into places and story turns that it would be a crime to spoil. What can be said is that the film, at least for a time, takes some dark detours as Mumble seeks to find out what is happening to all the fish in the sea and ends up powerless against a destiny that somewhat reminds of 2001's "A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
." Up to this point, well over an hour into the running time, "Happy Feet" ranks as the most original and valuable animated feature since 2004's "The Polar Express
." The innovation with which screenwriters George Miller, Warren Coleman, John Collee and Judy Morris have concocted the story is boundless and even epic, savvily incorporating cover versions of songs (sung by the actors in character) to portray the importance of music in the community. Everything from Prince to Queen to The Beach Boys to Chicago to Elvis Presley to Earth, Wind and Fire is performed, and a peppy opening medley duet between Hugh Jackman (2006's "The Prestige
") and Nicole Kidman (2005's "The Interpreter
") is unmistakably reminiscent of the one between Kidman and Ewan McGregor in 2001's fellow genre-bending musical "Moulin Rouge
Save for the whole singing and dancing side of the equation, the lives of the penguins are portrayed realisticallythink of a computer-generated version of 2005's "March of the Penguins
"with the males and females uniting to mate, and then parting ways for the season as the men are left to care for the all-important egg. Taken as a meaningful, vaguely disguised allegory about the importance for tolerance and acceptance to all living creatures and the things that cannot, nor should they, be changed about themi.e. race, sexual orientation, etc.the picture teaches a lovely lesson with limited preachiness and does it powerfully. Mumble isn't a great singer like the rest of the penguins, but he is determined to make everyone see that he still has something to offer that makes him purely his own individual. He may be different, but that doesn't mean he is any less worthy, and this desire for approval is where the film receives its welcome heart. It helps that the hero, Mumble, is as cute and lovable as can be.
Lest it appear that "Happy Feet" is heavy on messages and light on fun, the picture is a joyous, dynamically crafted entertainment crossing all age boundaires. The music is pleasing and plentiful and the tap choreography of Mumble, brought to life through motion capture and the talents of real-life tap extraordinaire Savion Glover, is amazingly lifelike. Most of the central characters, despite some of them looking alikethey are penguins, after allare easily distinguishable by personality and the well-known voice talents. Elijah Wood (2006's "Bobby
") is perfect as Mumble, his voice having the innocence and pluck needed to become the part. Any reason to get Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman to sing is welcome, and that they do here several times. Brittany Murphy (2005's "Sin City
"), voicing the part of Gloria, the subject of Mumble's affections, also has a strong singing voice that especially impresses during her rendition of Queen's "Somebody to Love." And Robin Williams, audibly appearing as two separate characters, is let loose to improvise and make the roles comic dynamite. The multilayered story, which covers a lot of territory, is told with prestige and maturity rather than compromising simplicity. And as for the computer-generated animation, it is up there next to "The Polar Express
," unsurpassed in terms of its detail, its scope, and its marvelous landscapes, so real that they jump off the screen like 3-D. One scene, as Mumble and his new Adelie friends slide down the icy mountain, is as thunderously exhilarating as a heavy-duty rollercoaster. In terms of the technological advances in computer generation, "Happy Feet" is a visual triumph and an inarguable work of art.
Alas, a great film can be instantaneously downgraded to "very good" status by a wrong step. This is what happened at the end of 2005's "War of the Worlds
," which concluded with a happy send-off as false as the summer days are long, and this is what happens in the final ten minutes of "Happy Feet." For a quality family movie whose numerous elements have been seamlessly woven up to this point, director George Miller suddenly introduces a new message about nature's ecosystem that bites off more than he can chew, and a final scene that disappointingly ends with a whimper rather than a bang. A film's ending is crucial, and for a musical, there should be a showstopping last song to send audiences out of the theater feeling like they are walking on air. In "Happy Feet," the last song-and-dance number is its most generic and lethargic.
If the questionable climax lessens the glory of the brilliant filmmakers, it makes no matter. By this point, "Happy Feet" has long ago grounded itself as the whole year's most exquisitely fine-tuned and gloriously original animated release. So many films of this sort have started to blend together as one in recent times that "Happy Feet" is like an ice-cold breath of fresh air. Sure, there are talking animals involved, but that is where the similarities stop. "Happy Feet" is thoroughly bewitching, laugh-out-loud funny, sweetly poetic, and meaningful, while most of the animated efforts from non-Pixar and Warner Bros. studios are hackneyed fluff easily forgotten. After waddling along with Mumble on his eye-opening trek of self-discovery, the viewer will rightfully believe they, too, have a song in their heartor a tap in their toejust itching to get out.