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Head Trip of the Penguins

  Happy Feet
George Miller, USA/Australia, 2006
Rating: 3.0
 

Posted: December 03, 2006

By Kevin Forest Moreau, Editor-in-Chief

Spoiler Warning: Major plot details are given away in this review.

I don't know George Miller, the director of the Mad Max and Babe films. I don't know anything about him, his worldview, whether he has kids and if so, whether they've grown into very strange individuals. All I know is that I hope he goes back to making movies for adults very soon. Not because Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome was so awesome, or because the world needs another Lorenzo's Oil or Witches of Eastwick, but because his latest movie for kids, Happy Feet, is one of the strangest movies I've seen in a long time: a collision of March of the Penguins and Madagascar, with elements of Greenpeace recruiting films and Stanley Kubrick thrown in for good measure.

As I write this, Happy Feet has just been crowned the No. 1 movie in the country for the third week in a row. And on the surface, you can see why kids would be drawn to it in massive numbers. The premise seems a bit sound, if somewhat odd: As a result of his egg being dropped by his dad, Memphis (voiced by Hugh Jackman, doing bad Elvis karaoke), Mumble (Elijah Wood) is an Emperor penguin who's born without a song in his heart. No, he's not a gloomy Goth -- he just can't sing, which is a handicap in a culture in which (apparently) every penguin has his or her own special Broadway show tune or soft-rock classic reverberating deep inside (resulting in a great many musical numbers of questionable merit).

All Mumble (who doesn't even mumble all that much) has going for him is an innate ability to tap dance like Savion Glover (who provides the film's hoofing via motion-capture technology) -- which seems a better fate than being forced to sing Prince's "Kiss" for the rest of your life, but maybe that's just me. Mumble just doesn't fit in, but the very thing that makes him different is something for which he should be celebrated, not condemned. So far, so good; seems like we're scraping pretty close to the bottom of the barrel in terms of kid-movie metaphors, but whatever.

But then things get loopy: The Emperor penguins are facing a bit of a famine, and the elders believe it's because the penguin god they all worship (to whom we're briefly introduced during an early sequence that feels like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey) is unhappy with Mumble's pagan ways. So the poor guy (who, perhaps as a result of being dropped, still looks like a baby penguin as he ages) sets off alone to find out who's really taking all the fish -- even though it means leaving behind Gloria (Brittany Murphy), the one penguin besides his mom (Nicole Kidman channeling all our collective fantasies of Marilyn Monroe at her "Happy Birthday Mr. President" breathiest -- I told you this movie's weird) who likes him for who he is. Even old Memphis sides with the loony elders (who for some reason speak in a Scottish burr).

Undeterred, Mumble undertakes his perilous journey, joined by a gang of shorter, wisecracking penguins -- led by Ramon (Robin Williams) -- who sound like Central Casting's idea of Hispanic teens from the barrios of East L.A. They're also joined by a colorful penguin named Lovelace (Williams again), who wears one of those plastic six-pack rings around his neck, which the locals take to mean he's a seer with connections to mystical beings. (The fact that he talks like Isaac Hayes seems to help.) C'mon now -- Lovelace?

(Here's where that spoiler warning really kicks in.) Soon enough, Mumble and his friends find out who is taking all their fish, and damned if it isn't us humans! So Mumble gives chase, eventually winding up in our world and getting thrown into an aquarium for his troubles, until his happy feet begin to garner media attention. This stretch of the movie is a bit weighty for the small fry at which it's aimed, and the grafting of an adult ecological message onto a movie about accepting individuality is awkward, to say the least -- and that's before we're treated to scenes of black-and-white human heads debating whether we should stop endangering the Emperors' habitat at the United Nations!

But that's not even the most peculiar part: The humans send Mumble back home (with some kind of tracking device strapped to his back), and after he reconciles with his apologetic dad, he convinces all the other Emperor penguins that they'd all better start tap dancing pronto if they want the humans to bestow their benevolence upon them and fix things. Is Mumble really telling his people that they'd better dance pretty for the Man if they want to survive as a species? And is no one else picking up on this bizarre connection to Spike Lee's Bamboozled?

In its defense, Happy Feet is a marvel of CGI animation, and the tap-dancing sequences are particularly well done (which accounts for our relatively benign rating). And I guess it's a good thing, in an educational documentary sort of way, that the early scenes of penguin migration and gestation hew so closely to what we've learned from March of the Penguins.

But between its whiplash-inducing thematic herky-jerky, its intense action sequences involving predatory birds and seals, its questionable racial stereotypes and the giant serious bummer that drops onto the movie's more-or-less lighthearted tone in the final third, you ultimately can't decide whether Happy Feet is a calculated stoner cult movie or a huge joke at the expense of preschoolers (or both). Maybe it's a plot point in an upcoming episode of Lost. Or perhaps it's a hugely misguided attempt at stealth marketing on the part of the PETA brigade. Seriously, you almost expect Mumble to stumble across a party of furriers heartlessly clubbing some baby seals. But then again, maybe they're saving that for the sequel. And you thought Babe: Pig in the City was heavy.

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