Hollywood is led by followers, and whenever a studio comes up with an unexpected left-field hit, other studios tend to rush out imitations, following blindly like lemmings (or penguins) over a cliff.
So when the 2005 documentary March of the Penguins became a surprise hit and ahem, broke the ice, more penguin movies became a possibility. Luckily, one was already in the works, and even more luckily, Happy Feet is the project of Aussie auteur George Miller
(best known for Babe), who does not follow anyone’s lead. It takes only a few seconds -- the time it takes one of the penguins to sing the first verse of Prince’s “Kiss," while another sings "Heartbreak Hotel" -- for Miller’s film to qualify as the weirdest movie of the year. (Not having seen March of the Penguins, I wasn’t aware coming into this film that each emperor penguin has its own "song." Knowing that fact could have helped me to grasp the concept sooner. Or not.) Article continues below
The quickest way to describe Happy Feet is as a computer-animated penguin Moulin Rouge, with penguins as the romantic leads, but it contains elements of teen movies of all eras (as well as TV’s Animal Planet, The Abyss, and perhaps even Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo). For that matter, the storyline -- a misfit penguin is unlucky in love, but his tap dancing makes him famous! -- goes back to clichéd prewar Broadway musicals. But somehow, the whole thing seems fresh. The penguins’ heartsongs are mostly jams from the last three or four decades, like Stevie Wonder, Queen, the Beach Boys, old-school R&B, etc.; the actors do their own singing (and yes, Brittany Murphy
can really sing). There are also some Adélie penguins (birds which supposedly "dance") which for some reason are portrayed as sub-West Side Story cariactures of Latin machismo. I don’t know why some of the penguins are Latino, but they help the film hit its groove and provide a couple of smiles -- a haunting version of the oldie "Leader of the Pack" and a Spanish-language "My Way," both sung by Robin Williams
(who also voices a Barry White-like character, Lovelace).
If all this doesn’t sound that good to you, well, it didn’t to me either, but I was just wrong. Yep, Happy Feet is weird and goofy, but sometimes you have to be goofy to be great. Unlike most other children’s movies this season, Happy Feet doesn’t insult anyone’s intelligence and its best gags are funny, clever, and not overworked.
Any computer-animated children’s movie is going to cross into Pixar
even had penguins) and Happy Feet includes all the requisite Pixar elements -- action scenes, pop culture references for the grownups, and celebrity voices (on a sad note, the late Steve Irwin
voices an Aussie elephant seal). But the sequences of penguins dancing on the ice sheets and struttin’ under the Southern Lights are definitely weirder than anything in a Pixar film to date.
And frankly, Animal Logic ices Pixar in the animation department. The icy landscapes are brilliantly conceived (and somehow almost 3-D), but even better are the penguins themselves. Their choreographed moves and body language are somehow broadly evocative even though most penguins are almost identical (there are a few visual cues to help -- Nicole Kidman
’s penguin has a mole, and Murphy’s penguin has a little cleavage). The animators are strangely able to take us into their feathered skins and make them seem like gangs of people (while still looking like birds).
Along with the jokes, the film offers an array of messages, from "Be yourself" to "Unite the world" to "Stop overfishing Antarctic waters." The film includes a dark environmental message which requires an abrupt change of tone, but that’s hip too -- and it works, because the animators make the penguins seem so much like us that we identify viscerally with their plight. In fact, when one of the penguins is brought to a zoo, the human faces outside the glass seem bizarre and alien, and we share the character’s alienation (while laughing with the jokes at the same time). Then there’s a quick cutaway to a frame of the earth floating in space, lost like an iceberg in a cold ocean" it’s effective.
The final message of Happy Feet is naïve and somewhat vague, but as Lovelace would probably put it" maybe if we can learn to live together, and everybody follows his own groove, maybe we can all come together and listen to our small Antarctic brothers, and make a groovy planet of love. Say it with me!