DVD Review: 'Happy Feet'

Is anybody else out there getting just a bit sick of anthropomorphized penguins? I get it -- as far as myopic studios are concerned, penguins are just little adorable monogamous feathered humans, like Peter Dinklage if he always wore a tux and worked for anchovies. Don't get me wrong here -- baby penguins are among nature's cutest creatures and full-grown penguins are remarkably resilient animals in their own right. But I have to say that my immediate reaction to the Oscar-winning "Happy Feet" is that no matter what anybody might think, watching little animated penguins bump-and-grind and sing sexually suggestive pop songs is just plain creepy.

OK. To be fair, my first reaction to "Happy Feet," new on DVD on Tuesday (March 27), is that it's an impressive achievement. Far and away the most visually assured computer-drawn film not produced by Pixar, "Happy Feet" has the thematic and technical finger-prints of its director, George Miller, fitting well with the "Babe: Pig in the City" and "Mad Max" helmer's running commentary on the place of individual expression in an increasingly conformist society.

Elijah Wood voices Mumble, a brain-damaged little penguin who's a masterful tap-dancer (choreography courtesy of Savion Glover), but a horrible singer. This is a problem, because in Mumble's group of penguins, you can't lure a mate without a beautiful heartsong. So while the other penguins go around singing totally inappropriate lyrically-altered songs by Prince and Salt-n-Peppa, poor Mumble can only tap, which is poorly received by the fundamentalist flock elders. See where this is going ideologically?

In "Happy Feet," the birds look fantastic and the snowy background never gets monotonous. There are least a half-dozen breath-taking sequences of penguins sliding down hills and frolicking in the water that are truly thrilling. The film falls down a bit on story, particularly a badly integrated third act in which the film suddenly becomes all about human destruction of the polar ecosystems. Its grand solution to the issue of environmental crisis? Well, if everybody in the world could see how darned cute penguins are, they'd probably try to figure things out. Really? That's the best they could do?

The film's vocal casting is also a bit bizarre. Want to cast a penguin as quintessentially Southern? Why not go with Aussie Hugh Jackman, who can't manage a consistent accent. What to cast a stereotypically Latino penguin? Robin Williams, of course. Williams, in fact, is at his most grating here, teetering on the edge of two forms of veiled racism as both Ramon and the Barry White-esque Lovelace. Remember when having Williams as an animation voice was a cause for celebration? I sure don't anymore.

Although "Happy Feet" contains ample potential enjoyment for older viewers who aren't perplexed by the humping penguins and relentless racial stereotyping, this first DVD release does not. Miller doesn't provide a commentary track, nor is there a single behind-the-scenes featurette.

Instead, the DVD's best featurette is a five-minute visit with Savion Glover, who offers the most basic of dancing lessons, advising kids that it's all about balance. Just watching Glover go is a pleasure and the closing "Anchors Away"-style duet with Baby Mumble is cute. If you're curious as to how, exactly, the animators worked with Glover to teach the penguins to tap, look elsewhere.

Miller introduces two new scenes. The first, titled "Mumble Meets a Blue Whale," includes the late Steve Irwin voicing an albatross and closes with a touching quote from the late crocodile hunter. The second, "A Happy Feet Moment," is pretty random, but it made me laugh enough to replay it several times.

The DVD also includes music videos for Gia's "Hit Me Up" and Prince's "The Song of the Heart," as well as the old Warner Bros. cartoon "I Love to Singa," in which a family of conservative owls are initially shocked by a young owlet's love for jazz music.

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