Two emperor penguins, Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman), meet through song. This isn’t unusual in their community; the penguins spend much of their childhood going to school to learn how to sing for this is the way they attract a mate. Memphis and Norma Jean’s egg is held by Dad during the winter, as Mom and the other females trek to the water, to feed and bring back food for their husbands and newborns. Memphis is a little upset when his egg doesn’t hatch at the same time, but Mumble soon breaks through the shell. It quickly becomes apparent Mumble is no ordinary emperor penguin; his voice can cause glass to break, but he can dance. As Mumble grows older, he earns the nickname Happy Feet (Eiljah Wood) and becomes attracted to another penguin named Gloria (Brittany Murphy). But Mumble’s dancing is unusual and scares the elders (led by Hugo Weaving) and his dancing is blamed for the lack of fish. Happy Feet decides he will venture forth and find the real cause of the lack of fish, as he learns of ‘Aliens’, from Lovelace (Robin Williams), a leader of a different breed of penguins. Soon, he discovers an abandoned outpost built by humans.
“Happy Feet”, directed by George Miller (“Mad Max”, “Babe”) is a surprisingly enjoyable film.
The animation is simply stunning. Every penguin is different and appears lifelike and real. As Mumble grows older, he is the one penguin in his group who still appears young, as though his adolescence is taking longer than normal. His feathers gradually recede throughout, giving him the appearance of growing, when all of his friends have already matured. This is yet another way he stands out and is made to feel different from the rest.
There is a lot of music in “Happy Feet” and the animators have done a great job of making the penguins appear to be actually singing. Their tongues move in their open beaks and their movements appear both penguin-like and evocative of the words they are singing. The marriage of music and animation is very effective and brought to mind “Moulin Rouge”; “Feet” uses the same sort of popular songs in an unexpected context to tell parts of the story. Memphis (Jackman), has a bit of an Elvis persona, and sings songs in that same manner. Norma Jean (Kidman) is more the chanteuse, singing 70s rock ballads to attract her mate. Gloria (Murphy) is a modern girl, in more the Pink/ Cristina Aguilera mode and sings more modern songs. As each character begins singing, the rest of the penguins around them are so overcome by the melody, they join in creating a defacto chorus, singing along, mimicking the moves, etc.
There are a couple of really nice sequences throughout “Happy Feet”. At one point, Mumble and his friends are dancing and singing and then start swimming and the sequence evolves into a choreographed Busby Berkley/ Esther Williams-esque homage, everyone begins to swim in synchronized movements, swirling in circles around other swimmers. All of this is fun to watch and the animation is simply stunning and very fluid, reminiscent of the live action footage in “March of the Penguins”.
Later, Mumble and some of his friends, the different breed of penguins with Spanish accents, are swimming through the water, trying to evade a giant leopard seal. Again, great animation because it is so fluid and believable as they dart in and under stone arches, past underwater rock formations, and through tunnels.
It is also fun to watch Mumble dance. He lets the rhythm take over and his feet begin tapping and doing a soft shoe. Famed dancer Savion Glover actually did the dancing for Mumble and his signature style is very recognizable, lots of tapping and sliding feet back and forth. They filmed Glover actually dancing, using Motion Capture technology. When they animated Mumble, Glover’s feet and movements were copied and computers were used to animate the penguin’s dance steps. It is a little more complicated than that, but you get the idea.
The voice characterizations are good, but not great. Jackman seems to have the most fun with his character, giving him a discernible feel and accent. Kidman is also good and she imbues Norma Jean with a wispy, ‘bombshell’ like voice. Eiljah Wood is less successful as Mumble and Brittany Murphy’s Gloria could have been done by any other young female actress. Her voice is very recognizable, but she does little to make the character unique.
Robin Williams provides three voices. The first is Lovelace, the leader of the smaller breed of penguins. Slightly overweight and full of bombast, he knows his place in the world and wants to keep his kingdom intact. But he is most successful with Ramon, the leader of the five penguins who tag along with Happy Feet during his journey. Using a Spanish accent, the character is funny and provides some comic relief along the way. A third voice only makes a brief appearance.
“Happy Feet” attempts to make a statement about the effects of the environment on these animals; the lack of fish for the penguins is causing problems and the elders naturally suspect the unusual new moves Happy Feet is making. But Happy Feet learns of strange beings, “aliens”, from Lovelace and suspects they may be the cause. Shunned by his community, he sets out on a quest. Without revealing too much, examples of human influences on the penguins are shown, but the course of Happy Feet’s journey is strange. He has some interactions with humans, but the end result is not convincing. All of a sudden, the mere presence of the penguin leads many humans to make sweeping, world wide environmental changes.
In the last act, when Happy Feet comes into contact with humans, we actually see some of these people. I can’t figure out if director Miller used just live action footage or if he filmed real actors and then treated it in some way. The humans appear realistic, but slightly soft, almost ghost like. It is an interesting look. But at the same time, the introduction of such realistic human elements makes “Happy Feet” resemble one of those live action Disney nature films made in the 60s and 70s, where a human scientist makes a brief appearance watching the lion cubs on the veldt.
“Happy Feet” is an enjoyable, fun film for the whole family. Not a classic, but worth watching.