Musically, George Miller’s CGI extravaganza Happy Feet is the Moulin Rouge! (2001) of animated all-singing, all-talking, all-dancing penguin movies. Like Baz Luhrmann before him, Miller takes an array of pop/rock songs — a little Queen, a little Prince, a dash of Elvis, a dollop of Stevie Wonder — and uses them to create a musical tapestry of a soundtrack. In an especially nice touch, he opens and closes the film with emotionally resonant bits (“Once there was a way to get back homeward” from “Golden Slumbers” is book-ended with “And in the end, the love you take,” etc. from “The End”) adapted from the B-side of The Beatles’ Abbey Road (itself a musical tapestry).
As with Luhrmann’s film, there’s surprising depth and feeling to the use of the music that occasionally outdoes the originals. I’m even willing to forgive the choice of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” as the big showpiece for Brittany Murphy, which feels a little tired since Anne Hathaway already performed a terrific cover of it in Ella Enchanted (2004). The soundtrack of Happy Feet, in fact, is the key to understanding Miller’s dark-edged movie — far more so than its often meandering screenplay.
Miller and company have crafted a film that’s aurally audacious and visually voluptuous (this is easily the most breathtaking CGI animation to date), but one that’s more than a little wobbly in its structure despite a simple premise. The storyline is almost a standard of the animated film — the tale of the misfit who proves himself and becomes a hero.
In this case, the misfit is a young emperor penguin, Mumbles (Elijah Wood), who unlike the other emperor penguins, can’t sing, but can tap dance like Fred Astaire with feathers. Not surprisingly, this doesn’t sit well with the penguin powers that be, especially the elder statesman of the flock, Noah (Hugo Weaving), who in a Scottish burr, denounces Mumbles as an “aberration,” a sin against nature whose wayward ways are the reason there’s a scarcity of fish. Even Mumbles’ father, Memphis (Hugh Jackman affecting an unappealing southern accent), urges the boy to give up his terpsichorean tendencies and be like everybody else. But Mumbles refuses, and is banished before his dancing ways can pervert the rest of the populace. (Anyone missing the gay undertones of all this needs a remedial course in subtext.)
Mumbles — along with a few outcast Adelie penguins, who come across a bit like rejects from a touring company of West Side Story — sets out to discover what’s really at the bottom of the fish famine. None too shockingly, it turns out to be the fault of the human race, which is over-fishing the waters of the Antarctic and leaving a trail of waste in the bargain.
As a concept and a plot, this sounds fairly solid. It’s certainly surprising in its subversive quality, which not only offers the aforementioned gay subtext (the most pronounced in a film of this type since Lilo and Stitch in 2002), but evidences a skepticism of religion in the bargain. (In addition to Noah’s wrong-headed — and ultimately hypocritical — preaching, it can’t be an accident that the first glimmer of the presence of destructive humankind is a church.) Unfortunately, Happy Feet can’t seem to stick to its own concept.
The plot — also including a romance between Mumbles and another penguin, Gloria (Brittany Murphy) — wanders all over the place, spending the first third of the film with little apparent direction. Characters pop up for no good reason and vanish with even less, so a good deal of the film — especially at 98 minutes — feels padded. The visuals, the soundtrack, the chutzpah of the film’s message are all admirable and often well-achieved, but it’s undermined by this central sloppiness that keeps it from being the film it very nearly is. It’s worth a look, but Happy Feet is ultimately as frustrating as it is pleasing. Rated PG for some mild peril and rude humor.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke