by Chris Pandolfi
I went into “Happy Feet” feeling a bit jaded from the slew of animated films released in 2006 (those of you who read my review for “Flushed Away” will know exactly what I’m talking about). I kept thinking: will another one be too much for me to handle? Thank goodness the answer was no; for the most part, “Happy Feet” is a well-paced, clever film that’s delightfully energetic, playfully humorous, and deceptively informative. Above all, it’s thoroughly entertaining, containing many scenes that would rival some of today’s best musical plays (if it weren’t for the fact that penguins can’t actually sing or dance). I enjoyed the characters. I enjoyed the music. I enjoyed the choreography. I enjoyed the photography, despite the landscapes being completely computer generated.
Most of all, I enjoyed the fact that, for a family film, the story was original. Let me explain: the ideas that were presented have been used in more serious, less family-oriented films. “Happy Feet” is formulaic as a Self Discovery movie. It tells the story of an emperor penguin named Mumble (eventually voiced by Elijah Wood) living in Antarctica. He lacks the ability to sing in a world where finding one’s heart song is vital for achieving true love. His only form of expression is dance; his feet tap away at lightening speed, and he practically floats across the ice. Unfortunately, none of the other penguins can appreciate or even understand this ability, and he’s immediately labeled as an unworthy misfit.
The story is also formulaic as a Hero’s Journey fable. The fact that the colony’s fish supply is dwindling is hinted at early on. The cause for such depletion is also hinted at; at one point, a ravenous bird (Anthony LaPaglia) tells Mumble that aliens abducted him. The creatures were big and fat, with eyes positioned on the front of the head and with odd appendages protruding from their bodies. And much to everyone’s dismay, they’re also smarter. They poked, prodded, and manhandled the bird, and they attached a small orange cylinder to his ankle before releasing him. Such descriptions stay with Mumble, and they come in handy when the fish supply is virtually gone; because he suspects that these aliens are responsible, he decides to find them and ask for a stop to their destructive behavior. What he has yet to understand is how far he’ll have to go and how dangerous a journey it will be.
Thus far, the plot is fairly straightforward and seemingly perfect for families. However, the film doesn’t adhere to the conventional child-friendly storytelling methods; not only does it have a non-traditional happy ending, it also has an underlying seriousness that isn’t as obvious in other such films. For one thing, the penguin’s group dynamic suggests religious satire; Mumble and his parents are part of a very large gathering, one that’s lead by group of elders. Everyday, they preach to the penguins the importance of praying to a god, which we already know is nothing more than the Aurora Borealis. What’s worse, they see Mumble as a deviant whose dancing angers the penguin god. If he wishes to remain among his kind, he must give his feet a rest and learn how to sing.
The satire goes further. Mumble’s father–the Elvis-sounding Memphis (Hugh Jackman)–has trouble accepting his son’s inability to sing, convinced that he “turned out wrong” because his egg was accidentally dropped. Even though he loves his son, he believes that, for the good of the colony, Mumble needs to shape up. “Don’t ask me to change,” he says, “because I can’t.” His mother–the Marilyn Monroe-sounding Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman)–is much more understanding; even though her son can’t sing, she sees that he isn’t any less of a penguin. Even Gloria (Brittany Murphy)–the would-be love interest–is eventually willing to look past Mumble’s shortcomings. But as he will come to learn, the support of two penguins isn’t enough for him to be accepted by the entire colony.
The satire goes further still. After being chased by a hungry seal, Mumble finds a new colony of penguins, ones of a different and shorter species. He first meets a small gang of thrill seekers led by Ramon (Robin Williams), a character so full of stereotypical Latin machismo that he practically steals the film. He introduces Mumble to Lovelace (also voiced by Williams), the religious leader of the group whose voice is a cross between a Barry White impression and a televangelist. He claims to have the answer to everything, and a dedicated following shows that many believe this to be true. All he asks for is a pebble as a form of payment. He’s first seen standing on a gigantic pile of pebbles, haughtily preaching to those who seek answers. But from our point of view, something is not right; around Lovelace’s neck is a “talisman,” which in reality is nothing more than the plastic six-pack rings used to hold soda cans. Such an idea is understandably disturbing, and it gets worse when he’s later seen choking. But it’s also effective, especially as the film draws to a close.
Mumble and his new friends begin the journey to find the “aliens,” which leads to a pretty interesting turn of events. Let’s just say that Mumble finds them, and he sees that their world is defined by putting other species in confined spaces (ones that ineffectively recreate the areas they came from). His experience paves the way for an ending I didn’t particularly care for. I found that bothersome; this would have been a perfect film had it not been for the ending, which is far too contrived to suit such an original story. Nonetheless, I have to give “Happy Feet” all five stars. I was amazed at its willingness to be different and I absolutely loved the satirical undertones.