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Happy Feet

Singing, Dancing Penguins (Yay!)

In a year that’s seen a glut of family-oriented computer animated films, some good (Ice Age: The Meltdown, Cars, The Ant Bully), but mostly mediocre (everything else), Fall entries aren’t likely to inspire confidence in their quality. Luckily, Happy Feet, co-written and directed by George Miller (Babe: Pig in the City, Witches of Eastwick, Mad Max), falls into the former category, thanks to a compelling storyline, clever, abundant quips and physical humor, top-notch digital animation comparable to the best put out in recent years, and rapid-fire action. Moviegoers, with or without children, will be happy indeed with Happy Feet.

Native to Antarctica, the Emperor Penguins chose their mates through unique, individualized “heartsongs”. Two penguins, Memphis (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) find each other through their heartsongs. Like other penguins, Memphis and Norma Jean begin a family. Their son, Mumble (Elijah Wood), can’t sing. Mumble has a different talent, though: he can dance. The community’s elders see Mumble’s presence as a double threat: to harmony within the community and the likely reason for the continuing fish shortage. That doesn’t stop Mumble from developing romantic feelings for Gloria (Brittany Murphy), a childhood friend, but without a heartsong of his own, Mumble seems doomed to bachelorhood.

After another failed attempt to fit in, Mumble meets up with a boisterous, fun-loving group of Adelie Penguins led by Ramón (Robin Williams), an energetic, quip-slinging penguin. They dig Mumble’s spontaneous dance moves and bring him along to their community, where Mumble meets their de facto leader, Lovelace (Williams again), a Rockhopper Penguin who’ll answer one of Mumble’s questions in exchange for a pebble. But Mumble, still troubled by the fish shortage and rumors of “alien abductions”, decides the best way to prove himself to his family and friends is to find an answer and put a stop to whatever’s causing the fish shortage.

On the plus side, Happy Feet deftly mixes strong storytelling (well, up until the last half hour), clever heartsongs (a mix of contemporary and classic pop songs), Busby Berkeley-styled dance numbers, and digital animation that equals anything Pixar Animation Studios and DreamWorks Animation has done up to now. The highly detailed, photorealistic backgrounds are nothing short of breathtaking. The character designs and animations are equally eye popping. Miller and his animators managed to create distinctive designs for the lead and secondary characters with a remarkable degree of expressiveness. With a huge assist from motion capture technology, the dance sequences are imaginatively choreographed and always a pleasure to watch.

Thematically, it’s easy to foresee where Happy Feet ends up: tolerance and respect of difference. The opposite, close-minded intolerance and a refusal to change the old ways to reflect new circumstances, almost ends costing the penguin community their future together. Handled as it is through Mumble’s personal journey from oddball to pariah through exile and, as expected, triumphant return to the penguin community, children and their parents won’t have any difficulty picking up the message. Luckily, the tolerance message is kept as subtext and, even when it’s explicit, it generally doesn’t interfere with enjoying the top-notch digital animation and, of course, singing and dancing penguins.

Smaller children, though, might find the three or four chase scenes with predators nipping at Mumble and his friends too intense or frightening. Some of the jokes fly so fast and furious that even adults will have trouble keeping up. But it’s the overlong running time and the unsubtle, if well meaning, environmental message that takes over the last half hour and culminates in the appearance of a deus ex machine (or more accurately, humanus ex helicopterus) that brings Happy Feet down, story wise. It’s likely to leave a sour taste for moviegoers looking for entertainment first and an environmental message a distant second. Still, Happy Feet has built up so much good will over the first hour plus that the overemphatic environmental message can be, if not exactly overlooked, at least excused.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars