Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky's feet could use a massage after kicking this Oscar-winning animated movie around.
Our reviews of Happy Feet (published December 4th, 2008), Happy Feet (Blu-Ray) (published March 26th, 2007), and Happy Feet: (Combo HD DVD And Standard DVD) (published March 26th, 2007) are also available.
"Guys, please—no more singing."—Mumble (Elijah Wood), to Ramon and the crew
After nearly a decade, Australian director George Miller—who has helmed cult classics ranging from the Mad Max series to the Babe films—turns up again with a computer-generated fantasia about singing, dancing penguins. It was a big hit and picked up an Oscar. After watching it, I can't figure out how it managed either feat.
Facts of the Case
Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) meet cold on the Antarctic ice during Emperor penguin mating season, with a duet melding Prince's "Kiss" and Elvis' "Heartbreak Hotel." Against all odds, their near-frozen egg hatches, producing young Mumble (Elijah Wood). "Normal" penguins can sing and sing and sing, and every penguin is only "truly penguin" when singing his or her "heartsong." Mumble was born wrong, however. He is not only unable to sing, but he can only express himself through dancing.
Separated from his species after a scary escape from a seal, Mumble hooks up with a crew of Adelie penguin vatos, led by Ramon (Robin Williams, who also narrates the story as the gospel-spouting Rockhopper penguin Lovelace). These penguins are party animals in the middle of their own mating season. They all find Mumble so "accidentally cool" that they embrace him and his dancing feet. But can Mumble get his own people—and his lady love Gloria (Brittany Murphy)—to accept his quirky ways before evolution eliminates him from the gene pool?
As soon as I heard the opening credits, where a cover of the Beatles' "Lullaby" segues into a muted version of the funk classic "Tell Me Something Good," I expected an Antarctic version of Moulin Rouge: mash-ups of pop tunes wedged into a melodrama with healthy doses of broad comedy, twittery romance, and operatic tragedy. I expected this to be less about characters than spectacle. And I was right, for about half an hour.
The first act of Happy Feet is exactly what you'd expect it to be judging from the trailers. It is a bright, peppy story about a misfit who must convert his people to his odd way of doing things. It is a successful formula, and there is no reason why it can't please even an audience already familiar with its story beats. The misfit in this case is the dancing Mumble. Tap wunderkind Savion Glover provides motion-capture dance moves for the film. Cute, but looking at all that ice under the characters' feet, I keep expecting the penguins to slip and fall while they bust a move. Still, I was trying to play along, trying to enjoy a film that seemed to work so hard to impart joy.
I wasn't feeling it. Why? The penguin-community sequences bounce along, free of emotional weight. They are pure spectacle, a synthesized video jukebox of popular music from the last fifty years. Beach Boys? Queen? Playing musical trivia games kept breaking me out of the film. In Moulin Rouge, this effect was intentional, part of the film's pomo play with its own stage conventions. In Happy Feet, the constant parade of pop tunes is distracting and made it difficult to connect with the characters.
The film assumes a built-in empathy for the characters merely because (a) they are adorable penguins and (b) you have probably seen the documentary March of the Penguins. The actual characters are thinly developed, as weightless as their animation. The grown-ups in the audience bond with the characters because the songs are familiar. When you hear a penguin (in this case, hip-hopper Fat Joe) break out a line from Grandmaster Flash, you chuckle and go, "Wow, I remember that song. This must be a cool movie because they can reference 'The Message.'" I kept waiting for the musical numbers to end and the story to get going—never a good sign with a film that is (at least for its first act) ostensibly a musical.
But what about George Miller, directing his first picture since 1998—this time entirely created inside a computer? Miller tries to give the film energy by nearly always moving the camera. Sometimes he really goes overboard, spinning the camera around his characters, particularly during dance numbers. I suppose this was intended to give the CG environments dimensionality, but a lot of the time it just made me dizzy. Miller does use the frozen landscape brilliantly, particularly during a brief but exciting ice slide about midway through the film. And he sure knows how to direct an action sequence.
But Happy Feet has a patched-together quality to it. The middle section of the film does focus more on characters—and as a result it is decidedly more engaging than the first act. Mumble's time with Ramon and his crew manages to engage our empathy more successfully, at least until the film wraps up its main storyline an hour in with a full-tilt production number.
Then the film switches tracks abruptly. Again, the old penguin guard accuses Mumble and his "happy feet" of not only causing a famine, but of straight-out religious apostasy. "It just doesn't make any sense," Mumble snaps, echoing the sentiments of the audience. So Mumble and his pals head off on a dark odyssey to find out why all the fish are disappearing. Can you see a conservationist message coming from across the fields of ice?
Mumble's third act quest might have made an exciting movie on its own (perhaps as a sequel somewhere down the road), although it is pretty frightening for small children. Thrilling stuff, but it feels like a completely different film. The art style shifts more toward realism for a while—and then…and then…how do I say this without spoiling the ending too much? The film shifts to live action for about ten minutes. Yes, live action footage with CG penguins, plus a terrifyingly dark and existential climax, plus an overly didactic message straight to the audience. You will be completely weirded out. I understand George Miller's good intentions here, but the radical shifts in tone and style broke me out of the film too many times. Then the finale is completely, utterly absurd, ten more minutes of—oh, I get a headache just thinking about it. By the closing credits, I was frustrated and aggrieved.
Happy Feet won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature, more a sign of lack of substantive competition this year than of the film's own merits. But the packaging must have been printed before the Oscar ceremonies, since it touts neither the nomination nor the win. The package for Happy Feet does include one of those laurel wreathes that announce that the film you have just purchased is critically respectable. It states, "Heartland Truly Moving Picture Award." I'm sure the non-profit film festival group that sponsors this award is made up of nice people—but really, let's think about this for a minute. This award (according to their website) honors "films that explore the human journey by artistically expressing hope and respect for the positive values of life." Putting aside the "human journey" part for a moment (giving the film the benefit of the doubt on its traditional use of anthropomorphized animals as surrogates for exploring the human condition), I can only think that the committee must have watched the last twenty minutes of the film taken out of context to get the whole "uplifting message" thing their award implies. Oh, wait—the last twenty minutes are already completely out of context with the rest of the movie. Never mind.
I am unsure what Happy Feet is trying to be. The story switches tracks too often, the comedy is amusing but not memorable, and the tone gets very dark in the third act. The closest comparison I can make is to George Miller's last directorial effort, 1998's deeply underrated Babe: Pig in the City. But that film's dark tone was bolstered by its stylized, almost dreamlike imagery. There was a consistency to the film, even if its unrelenting weirdness alienated viewers looking for the lighter feel of the original Babe.
I was hoping that the extras on the disc might clear things up, and give me a better sense of what Miller was trying to do here. No such luck. I watched a pair of deleted sequences, one of which is introduced by George Miller as a tribute to the late Steve Irwin (who cameos as an elephant seal in the film). A brief featurette spotlights Savion Glover's magnificent dancing, with a simple tap lesson included. Both these features are directed toward the little ones, judging from the way both Miller and Glover talk in that "there are kids in the room" voice—you know, the one Mr. Rogers perfected. Slow, with short words.
The two original songs for the film—a salsa-flavored ditty by Gia and a surprisingly limp number by Prince—both get music videos. A 1936 Warner cartoon, "I Love to Singa," is a parody of Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer: an owl music teacher with a thick Yiddish accent has an aversion to jazz. So guess what his newly hatched son (played by "Our Gang" regular Tommy Bond) will sing? Your kids won't get the period references at all—but you can get grandpa to explain them all for hours and hours.
Ultimately, Happy Feet is too many movies at once, none of them satisfying. It feels as if George Miller was trying to make Babe and Babe: Pig in the City at the same time, then went mad from the effort of trying to wrap them both together for a finale. First, a straightforward and disarmingly simple tale of personal empowerment, shifting into a surreal nightmare about the dark corners of human nature, capped with a deus ex machina that throws all logic out onto the ice to die of exposure. There is little harmony by the end. Cacophony is hard to dance to.
Guilty. The film is remanded to the custody of the local zoo.
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