Judge Dennis Prince can relate—he can't sing, and he can't dance, either. He can, however, play "I Gotta Be Me" in his armpit.
The voice you hear inside is who you truly are.
Make way for yet another contender in the battle for CGI supremacy. Warner Brothers and Village Roadshow step into the ring—or is that 'rink?'—to dazzle us with Happy Feet. This one's no slouch, nor is it an amateurish undertaking, delivering a solid style that was enough to garner it an Oscar win. And, with the CGI technology improving year after year, it's a given the only way to best experience a film like this is through the dazzle of high definition, this one offered via Blu-ray disc.
Facts of the Case
Young Mumble (Elijah Wood, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) is different than the other Emperor penguins in his Arctic community. While all the other "truly penguin" type have beautiful singing voices with which they convey their individual "heartsongs," Mumble has a throat that cracks in cacophony, causing him to utilize his talented tap-dancing feet to pour out his inner joy. The other penguins don't like it, least of all the Elders, who maintain their stodgy resolve to follow the communal tenets derived from their spiritual deity, the Great Guin. Mumble's father, Memphis (Hugh Jackman, The Prestige), bears the painful secret behind his son's vocal defect—he dropped the undeveloped egg into the snow while mother Norma Rae (Nicole Kidman, Batman Forever) was away to harvest fish. But fish are in short supply now, and the Elders blame the non-conforming Mumble for their hardship. Mumble isn't convinced by this assessment, and sets off to find out what has caused the fish shortage, while also discovering his own heartsong along the way.
Upon learning of the release of Happy Feet, I truthfully curled my lip in judgmental scorn at the thought of yet another CGI feature filled with animated animals doing the same old silly humanistic things. Honestly, how many times can one endure the same sort of madcap misadventure that alternately features a bear, a lion, a wooly mammoth, or whatever set in a story of trouble-turned-triumph? At this point, too many of them seem interchangeable with fewer and fewer emerging as memorable. With Happy Feet, my prejudice was unfounded.
It's not the greatest story told and it does have many familiar earmarks of the CGI animation genre—themes of diversity, tolerance, and individuality—but it tells its tale in a much more straightforward manner than many others. Director George Miller (yes, of The Road Warrior fame) and Warner Brothers bring something new to the arena dominated by Pixar and Dreamworks, with Sony hoping to chew off some of the digital pie for themselves. Happy Feet appeared more dramatic to my senses than most similar films. Mumble, despite his cartoon-y name, appears as a real character of complex makeup. He's self-sufficient, self-aware, and self-satisfied. That is, although the film could have easily wallowed in Mumble's suffering through an identity crisis and wailing "I just don't fit in" via dialog and song, he instead shrugs off his shortcomings—only seen as such by a dogmatic community—and pursues his own ambitions with confidence. Sure, there's plenty of silly asides to be found, largely offered by the Hispanic Ramon and pals, but that content doesn't attempt to dominate the proceedings, a fatal flaw in other CGI pictures when the "funny stuff" just isn't very funny (see Madagascar and Open Season). Therefore, Happy Feet works differently than others of its breed, traversing changes in dramatic tone that might appear disconnected but, actually, work to offer more than just funny animals. I like it.
The voice acting here is more of a departure as well. Elijah Wood maintains a tonal quality that establishes Mumble as his own character, rather than a mere doppelganger of Frodo Baggins. Even though Mumble's deep blue eyes might trigger thoughts of the young adult actor, the proceedings never tempt audiences to imagine Woods' visage replacing that of the on-screen young penguin's. Hugh Jackman dons a suitable Elvis drawl in his portrayal of Memphis, again making it difficult to imagine the X-Men actor; that's good. Likewise, Nicole Kidman is hardly recognizable as Norma Rae. The only actor who dares to burst out of the penguin pelt is Robin Williams, his portrayals of the Hispanic Ramon and the African-American Lovelace having all the audible qualities of the comedian's usual stereotype send-ups. Don't fear this might come off as an ethnic affront; it shouldn't, because it's just Williams doing his "thing," the sort that has tickled audiences for decades now.
The technology on display here is incredible, the penguins moving flawlessly and with a realism of speed and motion that has me expecting Peter Jackson's Kong to look "phony" in about another year. The renderings are incredible, and the "camera movement" is becoming so much more emotive and elemental than ever before. Interestingly, as enraptured as I was in seeing the near-perfection in the penguins, I became anxious in anticipation of seeing humans enter the mix. To date, I've yet to see humans done well in reality-based CGI; they look flat and lifeless every time (and even creepy, if ever you've hopped on board The Polar Express). Miller deserves a round of applause for integrating live action footage of humans into the film, likely recognizing a CGI human is an immediate deal breaker in the current state of the technology. Bravo!
This Blu-ray release is a third concurrent offering from Warner Brothers, arriving day and date alongside the HD DVD and standard definition DVD editions. No need to dance around it—the high-definition route is the way to go with this one. The image quality delivered via this 1080p / VC-1 encoded transfer is eye-popping. No kidding, this picture is top tier without question, reminiscent of the similar unrivaled quality of previous Blu-ray releases The Corpse Bride and Open Season. The image is flawless and magnificently rendered, colors looking incredibly supple, dimension being unbelievably deep, and details being immaculate. Although I would resist the sort of high-definition hyperbole being thrown around by the competing format factions, it would be unreasonable to hold back on giving my highest accolades to this transfer. If you're looking for a new reference quality disc to show off you HDTV setup, this is it.
Unfortunately, on the audio side, this Blu-ray misses a step. The audio is offered in a Dolby Digital 5.1 EX track that, while it sounds fine within an SD setting, just doesn't step up to the expectations of the enhanced technology. A look across the table at the HD DVD edition reveals Warner chose to bestow the red-jacketed option with the preferred Dolby TrueHD mix, which should have been countered with a PCM 5.1 Uncompressed or DTS HD 5.1 Master Lossless Audio track on this Blu disc. Therefore, prepare to be slightly disappointed here. This EX track, while it sounds good and delivers some nice directional imaging and low end engagement, always feels like it can't quite cut loose fully. It's clear and intelligible throughout, yet it feels needlessly confined.
Without wanting to be a wet blanket, I also need put my foot down in disappointment over the extras on this disc. While it's good to find all three formats include the same bonus features, the fact is they all unabashedly sidestep their duties to provide meaningful material. Watching the film, I was readying myself for some excellent behind-the-scenes features that would reveal the excellent motion capture work and the engaging voice acting sessions (who wouldn't want to see Robin Williams, Elijah Wood, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, and others doing their thing?), along with the digital composite work that rendered this beautiful film. Well, that egg never hatched, as I discovered when I saw the paltry offering of extra items. This might smack of an upcoming double dip, likely justified by Warner Bros. in recognition of the film earning the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture of 2006. Despite the prestigious and well-deserved Oscar, I sincerely doubt this film could compel consumers to make a repeat purchase (although I accept the fact that I might be singing off-key in this particular regard). Anyway, the extras you will find include additional animated sequences, the first of which features the late Steve "The Crocodile Hunter" Irwin as an albatross that explains the mammoth blue whale to a wide-eyed Mumbles. The sequence begins with an introduction by George Miller; it's presented in HD. The next animated sequence is a brief bit of young Mumbles doing his happy feet thing. Dance Like a Penguin: Stomp to the Beat features dancer and co-choreographer Savion Glover showing young viewers a bit about the art of tap dancing. It plays a bit too much like an old Electric Company segment—not bad, but sort of out of place given the feature film's more mature delivery. Two music videos are on tap, one from Prince and another from Gia; neither is memorable. Drawing from the narrative theme of the main feature, Warner has included a classic Looney Tune cartoon, "I Love to Singa," that tells of an oddball owl offspring that prefers jazzy numbers to the condoned classical arrangements. Last up is a single teaser trailer from Happy Feet.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you're looking for zany animal antics, Happy Feet isn't the CGI outing for you. Sure, the Robin Williams-led troupe of penguin "vatos" are playfully wacky and conjure up the same sort of fun that Cheech Marin always summoned in live action and voiceover, but this film has a bit more to achieve than this. Actually, the picture works hard to offer a Greenpeace message about mankind's harvesting of fish and the adverse impact that has on the ecology of the Arctic region. If you're of this mindset, you'll likely embrace the message and simplistic resolution offered. If you're not inclined to this perspective, though, then you might feel the film is attempting a political ploy. But it's a nascent effort at best, and one that shouldn't detract from the otherwise enjoyable experience.
Happy Feet on Blu-ray is a sort of mixed bag, then. Visually, it's stunning. Audibly, it's acceptable. Comprehensively, it falls short of providing in-depth features. It's a good film and a technically impressive release, but for my money, in the high-def realm I'd lean toward the HD DVD edition at this time.
This court, exercising due process in consideration of the slight infractions committed, will nonetheless exhibit its leniency in dismissing charges against the Happy Feet Blu-ray disc. This court, just the same, sends an admonishing message to Warner Brothers to ensure their future Blu-ray releases will measure up against the HD DVD alternative. If not, a format war could break out, and we wouldn't want that.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Additional Animated Sequences
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