Penguins sure do seem to be popular these days. Not only is the hockey team that bears that name cruising through the NHL playoffs (sorry Ottawa, New York, and Philadelphia), but these cute flightless birds have been the centerpiece of three hit movies over the past few years. Happy Feet, the 2006 hit film that boasts one of the most impressive voice casts ever assembled, including Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, and Hugo Weaving. The result is a film where we barely recognize any of the voices, which is a good thing -- the characters are so good, from the animation to their personalities that the voices become the characters. The only voice that truly stands out is that of Robin Williams, but only because of a few trademark Williams' lines that do tend to stand out above the rest.
Every Penguin needs to sing. It's a basic right-of-passage, the means by which they attract a mate. Each has their own unique song inside, known as the "heartsong." As it turns out Norma Jean (Kidman) and Memphis (Jackman), discover one another through the gift of song, and soon enough find themselves with an egg, inside of which is their baby. When Norma Jean and the other mothers-to-be leave to fish, Memphis is left to care for the egg, which he does proudly. Unfortunately, the egg one day escapes his warm body and finds itself exposed to the brutal elements for only a few moments, risking the baby's development and life. Later on, once all the other eggs have begun to hatch, Memphis and Norma Jean's egg remains motionless, but in the fashion of better late than never, little Mumble (Wood) emerges with a peculiar spring in his step.
As it turns out, Mumble just cannot sing. His voice cracks under the strain of melody, and it is feared he will never be able to lead a normal penguin life. He's rejected by his fellow penguins and sets out on his own. Befriended by some shorter-in-stature penguins, Mumble returns home with some startling news -- he may have discovered aliens. Upon his return to his home, he tries to woo the accepting Gloria (Murphy) with the help of a few of his new friends, but his tap-dancing charades are once again rejected by the group's elders, and their lack of fresh fish is blamed on their god's anger at Mumble's odd ways. Mumble sets out to prove once and for all that aliens do exist, and that it is they -- not him, and definitely not his dancing -- that have dried up the supply of fish.
There is no denying that Happy Feet turns from a cute-and-cuddly story of "the little penguin that could" to a film with heavy political overtones, a move that is sure to disenchant some viewers who want to get their fill of politics on the local news, not at a children's movie that features dancing penguins. Younger audiences are less likely to care, and the youngest will probably find themselves confused during the film's final act that blends real-life human characters with animation. Bothered or not by the infusion of a 'message' in what should be a 'happy' children's movie, there is enough here to like and thus overlook that aspect of the film, should you choose to do so. The film's superb animation, excellent use of sound, and several exciting and touching sequences make the first two-thirds of the film easily watchable, fun, and heartwarming.
Variously exhilarating, moving and funny, Happy Feet combines cute with caring as it unleashes musical penguins on a movie world stuffed with animated animals. For once, it's not too much, and the visual thrills of an Antarctic setting add to the pleasures of this extraordinary undertaking. Sydney's Animal Logic has equalled Pixar's prowess in high end digital work which is always spectacular and always in the service of the story.
So ... Australia has made the world's first digital penguin musical, in which the hero is different to his peers. Mumble (Elijah Wood) is cast out, makes new friends, remains true to himself, sets off to right a wrong, returns vindicated and finds true love. Happy Feet? You bet. And happy audiences, too, taken on thrill rides down glaciers with penguins cavorting on the snow, sliding at speed across the ice, swimming in choreographed formation underwater, fighting off nasty elephant seals, escaping whales and learning that another species is threatening their own. The film's darker moments add texture and purpose to the story, a couple of messages that are well worth the effort, and yet the film is never burdened by them; the tone remains buoyant and the final resolution carries meaning.
The showbiz references - Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman breathy as Monroe's ghost) as his mum, Memphis (Hugh Jackman channelling Elvis) as his dad - add a human worldly touch, as do the Latino Adelie penguins, whose Ramon (Robin Williams) is a hoot. Williams also voices Lovelace the Guru, whose role is pivotal in Mumbles quest to save his habitat.
The majestic landscapes and the technical skill of the filmmakers - not to mention the fabulous range of songs across multiple genres - combine to make Happy Feet the wondrous film that it is.
With its cast of thousands, Happy Feet is a spectacular extravaganza of a musical that breaks the ice both technically and literally. Visually, George Miller's fantasy is a dream, with its saturated colours, technical gee-whizzery and adorable singing, dancing penguins that lure us into their unique icy world. It's an adventure, musical, romance and coming of age story all rolled into one, and audiences of all ages will be captivated. At the story's heart is the story of one little penguin who dares to be different and finds a way to make a difference. Beyond the cute factor, there's an ecologically sound moral, although the integration of humans into the story is its weakest point. While the film may lack the kind of emotional depth we encountered in Babe, it is a truly magical experience.
'It just ain't penguin,' says Hugh Jackman's Penguin dad Memphis, when Elijah Wood's baby Mumble taps his penguin feet in a burst of happiness display. If you saw the Oscar winning March of the Penguins, you will be familiar with the nurturing process when the mother penguin leaves the precious egg to incubate in the male penguin's care. It is the moment when Memphis drops the egg, that the damage is done, and the musical gene common to all penguins skips its way into a dance gene instead. There are singing classes in search of a heart-song, followed by wonderful scenes in which Mumble teams up with the cuter-than-cute Adelie Amigos Latino penguins (headed by Robin Williams) who sing up a storm. All the voices work beautifully - Jackman as the Southern Memphis, Nicole Kidman as the breathy Norma Jean, Brittany Murphy as Mumble's diva girlfriend Gloria, and Wood as the unselfconscious penguin who dares to believe.
The music is cleverly conceived and we have great fun as the penguins slip and slide down the icy slopes, endure the terror as the whales snap their jaws and watch in wonder as they dive into the waters in formation and perform impressive gymnastics. It's a triumph for Animal Logic who has brought the penguins to life and the scene showing thousands of penguins tapping their feet in harmony is a delight. The innovation is inspiring, in this happiest of happy films that will make audiences smile all through the summer.