Judge Ryan Keefer wonders if slam dancing counts in the grand scale of body moves set to music.
Warning: May cause toe-tapping.
I wouldn't have believed that the guy who directed The Road Warrior would do an animated kids film with the guy who played Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, and the guy who played Wolverine in X-Men, not to mention the guy who played Agent Smith in The Matrix, have them all do voices as penguins, and have the film be any good. Never mind that there are two Oscar winners who provide voices in the film too. So, is Happy Feet worth the near $200 domestic box office gross, or is this just part of the ongoing love affair the world has with the flightless birds of the polar ice caps?
Facts of the Case
The most recent winner of the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film, Happy Feet was written by John Collee (Master and Commander) among others and directed by George Miller. The story tells the tale of Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman, The Hours), who find each other through the medium of song. They have a child named Mumble (Elijah Wood), and although he can't sing (supposedly due to being left out in the snow accidentally), he can dance like it's nobody's business. He grows up around his childhood crush, a female penguin named Gloria (Brittany Murphy, Sin City) who really likes him, but is embarrassed by his lack of singing. So Mumble wanders off and encounters a group of penguins with a Latin flavor, the notable one being Ramon (Robin Williams, Good Will Hunting). They help him try and find some of the "aliens" that have been taking the fish from the penguins' food supply, a theory first proposed to him by Skua (Anthony LaPaglia, Without a Trace), a bird who has been captured and tagged in reality, but sees himself as "abducted." Mumble travels a long way to find the reason behind the fish shortage, which helps fill out the rest of the hour and 40 minutes and change.
Quite frankly, I've grown sick and tired of the Hollywood love affair with penguins. Be it for documentary, satire or animated kid's comedy, why the penguin? First it was Mario Lemieux, then it was Sidney Crosby, now this? Oh, sorry, wrong penguins. Even with that misdirected gripe out of the way, imagine my surprise that Happy Feet winds up being a charming little flick. And the main character Mumble sticks true to his non-singing nature, and despite his dancing, which everyone else in the tribe (or whatever a group of penguins is called) considers an embarrassment, he decides to try and figure out why they're losing more and more fish.
Where the story seems to falter, or more to the point, to not be another gem in a crown normally worn by Pixar, is that there aren't enough sugary sweet moments in this film that tug at your heartstrings. The folks that bring you Monsters Inc. or (more appropriately) Finding Nemo have a lot of emotional elements that are lacking in Happy Feet, and usually any Pixar release appeals to a wide cross-section of people, both kids and adults. Don't get me wrong, Happy Feet has a lot of really cool animation, which I'll get to in a minute, but past that, some recognizable songs to anyone whose frame of musical reference is from approximately 1975 to 1982. That's not bad at all, but limiting yourself to that kind of thing can hamstring a film, and that's exactly what happens to Happy Feet. You lose any kind of emotion or empathy for the characters, and are looking forward to the next song or the next "cut scene," for lack of a better phrase.
Does that make the film a complete wash? Absolutely not. The 1080p VC-1 presentation that Happy Feet sports truly is top-shelf. I've only seen one other title in the ballpark, and that was Corpse Bride. Naturally to have the straight digital transfer without having to strike anything onto film first is a plus. The colors are sharp, the characters all look vibrant and crystal clear, and the larger shots to show larger exteriors or action scenes are simply amazing. As the second and third acts transpire, there are introductions of human elements (presumably shot via digital medium) that make you honestly wonder how the visual effects people did it (and why some sort of making-of look isn't included on the disc). Even as impressive, the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack comes thundering in at the right moments. Miller lets the scenery do the talking a lot of the time and it works. Make sure you have your home theater setup turned down to a respectable level when the icebreaking ship comes through, unless you'd like some vital organs rearranged.
When I said earlier that the lack of a making of look at the film was a disappointment, I meant it. In fact, some decent production featurettes probably would separate this disc from good to great. As it stands, the only extras to think of are two additional scenes. The first is a scene that included Mumble talking to an albatross. The scene features an introduction with Miller and is notable for the inclusion of the late Steve Irwin. Irwin's voice does show in the feature film as one of the elephant seals, but he was originally supposed to appear as an albatross. The scene itself is about three minutes and isn't bad. The other scene is a cute blooper. There are a couple of music videos, along with a look at the dancer to inspired Mumble, and in terms of cuteness, a Warner Brothers classic cartoon called "I Love to Singa" is included, whose story loosely resembles that of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Frankly, I've never been a huge fan of Robin Williams. And he gets to voice not only one, but two characters, and uses overblown racial stereotypes in both to upset the Hispanic and African American sectors of the viewing demographic. It's like he channeled Tony Montana for the Ramon character and Kingfish for the Lovelace character, both of which don't employ any imagination. Speaking of which, Jackman's character is named Memphis, so naturally he uses an Elvis impression for the whole film. Yeah, that's what I thought you'd say.
Happy Feet quite frankly is a keeper more for the technical qualities than its cinematic ones. On my 60-inch Sony widescreen TV, I had to get a second and third towel to mop up my drool from how nice this thing looked on my set. Moreover, the film isn't too bad either for those of you who have kids in the house, with a story that's nice enough and easy to follow. Oh, did I say it looked good on a big TV? Whether it's worthy of the best animated feature of 2006 remains to be seen by this court, but it lives up to the praise. It's on both HD formats, so you should feel confident to use it as a reference disc to tout Blu-ray or HD DVD.
The court is too uncoordinated to dance, but will do a softshoe shuffle while acquitting the filmmakers of this effort.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Additional animated sequences
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