Movie review: 'Happy Feet'

EntertainmentMoviesRobin WilliamsPG Rated MoviesHugo WeavingElijah WoodHugh Jackman

3 stars (out of four)

A dancing-penguin epic with more mood swings than "It's a Wonderful Life" and "Terms of Endearment" put together, "Happy Feet" also claims the distinction of being the grimmest film with the word "happy" in its title since "Happy Birthday, Wanda June." This is merely a fact, not a dismissal. Far from it: A lot of director George Miller's film is gorgeous and exciting. Its craftsmanship and ambition put it a continent ahead of nearly every other animated feature of the last couple of years.

Audiences are in for an emotional thumping, as well as a bit of bait-and-switch. Despite the movie's joyous poster image and marketing promises of an all-ages lark, the Australian director of "Babe" (lovely) and "Babe: Pig in the City" (only slightly grimmer than "Happy Feet") wants audiences young and old to earn their happy ending like they've never earned one before.

The storyline doesn't fully cooperate. But in a genre that relies on too many forgettable wisecracking critters who talk like out-of-work sitcom story editors, Miller's eco-musical goes its own way, defying the usual formulas.

Just as "Babe" put the whammy on a generation of young vegetarians in the making, "Happy Feet" may well lead to a generation of kids who refuse to eat fish, or even those cheddar goldfish crackers. The film takes place on an Antarctic ice shelf full of menace as well as computer-animated, photo-realistically crisp vistas. Breathy-toned Emperor penguin Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman) and her beau, the Elvis-inflected Memphis (Hugh Jackman), have a son, Mumble (Elijah Wood), who can't sing a lick. Without a "heartsong," how will this plucky fellow find a mate or acceptance of his kind?

Answer: by tap-dancing like Savion Glover. There's something you didn't get in "March of the Penguins." Using motion-capture techniques, the animators did in fact film co-choreographer Glover's steps and penguin-ize them, to charming and kinetically pleasing effect.

Mumble's avocation comes in handy late in an increasingly despairing game. The unseen humans' nearby marine harvesting has left the penguins without a food supply, and the village elder (Hugo Weaving), looking for a scapegoat, singles out Mumble for his "pagan display" of tap-dancing. The young hoofer falls in with a group of Adelie penguins, whose vato leader, Ramon, is voiced by Robin Williams. He also provides the voice of Lovelace, a guru penguin slowly being strangled -- and not in a funny way -- by a plastic six-pack ring. Mumble's special lady penguin friend (Brittany Murphy) follows him across the vast ice universe, but in the end, it is Mumble alone who confronts the alien "annihilators," better known as mankind.

By the time Mumble nearly loses his mind in zoological confinement, director Miller seems determined to send youngest viewers into therapy and swearing off zoos altogether. (My nearly-6-year-old son's review of this plot development: "Movie, please be over.") I wouldn't take a child under 7 or 8 to see "Happy Feet." Not all PG animated projects are created for the same audience. While younger kids will enjoy the zippy, swooshy bobsledding sequences and the underwater swimming, the "Jaws"-like attack of the leopard seal ... not so much.

"Moulin Rouge"-style, "Happy Feet" mashes up pop hits ranging from a Spanish version of "My Way" to Stevie Wonder's "I Wish" to Prince's "Kiss." The Prince tune opens and closes the picture. Such free-range sampling can sound junky in the wrong hands, but Miller, who also produced and co-wrote, knows how far to push this sort of thing. He doesn't use the songs strictly for parody's sake. While Miller may indulge in one too many IMAX-minded 360-degree gyrations, "Happy Feet" is the work of a real director who knows how, and when, to cut away from a given shot. The film's editing rhythm is not frenetic. It actually allows musical and non-musical sequences to breathe, while using the photo-realistic scenery (no virtue in and of itself when it comes to animation) to frame an often frighteningly intense story.

Miller may have misjudged the harshness of the later passages, but "Happy Feet" does you the favor of not telegraphing every plot point at every opportunity. And for once, not every comic-relief punch line in this contains the word "butt."

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'Happy Feet'

Directed by George Miller; screenplay by Miller and John Collee, Judy Morris and Warren Coleman; choreography by Savion Glover and Kelley Abbey; art direction supervision by David Nelson; music by John Powell; produced by Doug Mitchell, George Miller and Bill Miller. A Warner Bros. Pictures release. Running time: 1:48. MPAA rating: PG (some mild peril and rude humor).

Mumble -- Elijah Wood

Norma Jean -- Nicole Kidman

Memphis -- Hugh Jackman

Gloria -- Brittany Murphy

Ramon/Lovelace the Guru -- Robin Williams

Noah the Elder -- Hugo Weaving

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