I’ll bet Pixar is kicking themselves for not being the ones who made this movie. Sure, Cars made hundreds of millions and looked really good, but overall it was pretty run-of-the-mill. On the other hand, Happy Feet (produced by Animal Logic, for Warner Brothers) is not only visually incredible (both for its super cute penguins as well as the amazing Antarctic vistas) but it is a whole lot of fun, with a pretty good story, funny dialogue, totally enjoyable musical numbers, and tons of lovable characters. At the centre is Mumble Happy Feet, fuzzy little penguin who grows up as an outcast because he can’t sing (since singing is at the heart of the emperor penguin culture), but he can dance. Baby Mumble is adorable, but you might wonder where the story could possibly go. Is it just about how an outcast overcomes adversity and becomes beloved by his community? It’s that and much more. Happy Feet contains the “adventures on the road” elements of Finding Nemo, with the “quest to save the community” aspects of A Bug’s Life, along with themes of social tolerance and protection of the environment, and a love story to boot. There are intense action sequences when the main characters are chased by predators, and exuberant musical numbers as the penguins express their “heart song”. Happy Feet even works as an unofficial prequel to the documentary film March of the Penguins. This movie’s got it all.
Let’s start with the animation. The icy landscapes look wonderful: almost photo-real, but brighter and more vivid. The characters are surprisingly well drawn, especially given the difficulty of telling one penguin from another. While they are able to express all kinds of emotions, they’re also able to move their bodies and flippers to mimic full out singing and dancing (in fact, Broadway dance sensation Savion Glover was responsible for the choreography of Mumble’s signature tapping and acted as one of the motion capture models for a lot of the dance moves). Nevertheless, the penguins still move essentially like penguins (isn’t it annoying when animals move basically like humans, losing virtually all original animal qualities? That’s right, I’m not really a fan of Mickey, Donald, or Goofy.) There are a few moments in the movie where humans appear and I have to tip my hat to the producers for being smart enough not to animate the humans but mix in footage of real actors (if they can bring animated characters into a real scene, why can’t they put real actors into an animated scene?). The effect is seamless and so much better than the creepy CG mannequins that usually appear for humans.
Now the music. The idea that penguins have music as a part of their culture was pure genius because it’s such a fun conceit. The penguin mating ritual becomes a wonderful medley as girl penguins sing their “heart song” and boy penguins sing theirs in an attempt to match up. Of course, we’re not talking about wordless squeaks and yelps; we’re talking about songs from Queen, Beach Boys, Tom Jones, Elvis and many more. Fun, right? I especially loved when Mumble makes his way to a neighbouring community of Adelie penguins. Robin Williams plays Ramon, one of five amigos he meets there who bond with and support him on his journey. The Adelie penguins, who the movie makes Latin, add a whole lotta salsa to the mix. Ramon (as you might expect) is hilarious, and his version of Sinatra’s My Way is great.
Mumble (voiced by Lord of the Ring’s Elijah Wood) is on a mission to find out what’s happening to the penguins’ fish supply. The community leaders make him a scapegoat, blaming his outrageous dancing for offending their penguin deity, but he is determined to find out more about the “aliens” he’s heard rumours of and what they are doing to the fish. Along the way he meets the amigos, and a local guru (also voiced by Williams) who claims to receive messages from the Spirit Beings. While I don’t want to reveal much more of the story, I will say that I was amazed at how much more story there was. One penguin really can change the world for the better. (5 out of 5)