If there's a phrase to take the edge off "dancing-penguin movie," it's "from the director of Babe." That movie got everything right about talking animals, finding a way to meld human and animal movement for humor, and passing along a touching message without making viewers feel mugged by a grade-school teacher. Too bad that in Happy Feet, director (and writer) George Miller doesn't live up to his earlier work.
The film starts out well enough, on an iceberg where penguins sing until they find another penguin whose tune matches theirs. (It's clear that the filmmakers, along with the rest of humanity, saw March of the Penguins.) This setup allows the cast to sing numerous pop hits, to varying effect. Memphis (voiced by Hugh Jackman, doing Elvis) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman, as Monroe) hook up over a Prince duet and finally have a chick. They name him Mumbles, and he's voiced with painful earnestness by Elijah Wood.
Memphis is soon ashamed to learn that Mumbles can't sing at all, instead possessing the gift of tap (gift provided by Savion Glover, a neat trick). Beyond the obvious, it's a little strange to watch a penguin tap-dance, lacking as it does visible knees. But here it works, until the penguins bend their wings to the beat -- that just ain't natural.
The animation is top-notch, especially when showing off the harsh beauty of crashing waves. Still, the penguins themselves are a little strange, as the filmmakers struggle to make each one look different when just about the only thing funny about penguins is that they all look the same.
Happy Feet works much better when Mumbles and his peers are babies. (The best moment in the movie is probably when a school of the little fuzzballs sings the Beach Boys' In My Room.) Everything's going well and seems right on track for a cute story about being yourself. Tap, baby penguin, tap! But then Mumbles has to grow up and go meet Robin friggin' Williams.
Children, young and innocent as they are, may not yet have grown to loathe the actor's shtick, but you might like to know that he's been given two -- yes, two -- roles in this film. Williams plays both a flamboyant, romantic Latino and a histrionic Barry White of a preacher as if the concept of stereotypes hadn't yet been invented. I'll forgive Miller for casting his Australian pals (in addition to Jackman and Kidman, there's Hugo Weaving and even a cameo from the late Steve Irwin). But, really, couldn't he just find a funny black guy?
Still, the movie doesn't totally go off the rails just yet. Mumbles goes back to his tribe and uses his dancing to win the heart of Gloria (Brittany Murphy), and you're thinking, jeez, this was a short movie. But it's not over yet.
As its last hurrah, Happy Feet trades its "Be yourself" theme for a "We must regulate the overfishing of the Antarctic oceans" theme. No, for real. There's even a climactic montage that includes shots of a debate at the U.N.
It's not that there could never be a good kid-flick made out of a serious political issue, but the fish shortage is barely mentioned in the first half of the film and seems tacked on so that the cast members can pat each other on the back for making an important film. Pat each other on the back while they eat their sushi. As if it weren't bad enough they made a dancing-penguin movie.