November 19, 2006

Movie Review: Happy Feet

I remember when I first saw the first teaser trailer for this. It was around the time that March of the Penguins had its mainstream success, it showed that a movie about penguins could be heartwarming and bring the people out in droves. Someone then got the idea that if they animated the story, added a little music, and a manic Robin Williams you could have another hit. Happy Feet was born. Now, it is my understanding that Happy Feet was in production prior to the success of March, I guess everything is in the timing.

As the release of the latest animated feature approached and more footage was released, it looked like it was going to be a fun little movie. Cute penguins, singing and dancing, all with celebrity voices, how could you go wrong? What I didn't count on was just quite how enjoyable it would be.

Happy Feet is the story of Mumble. He is a little different than the other Emperor penguins. You see, Mumble can't sing. At the core of the society is the heartsong, the song that each penguin finds inside him or herself that they use to attract a mate. Rather than sing, Mumble's heart is expressed through dance, and boy can he dance. Unfortunately, his lack of singing ability proves to be an embarrassment to his father and he finds himself ostracized from society. To top things off, there is a shortage of fish, and Mumble's differences lead him to be blamed for this lack of food.

What follows Mumble's exile is an epic journey, a journey to find himself, find the food, and win the heart of the penguin he loves. The story elements are nothing new, coming of age, fish out of water, ugly duckling, man versus environment, they have all been done before. What makes Happy Feet stand out is the infectious enthusiasm that has been stitched inside the cliches. The familiar songs, the big dance numbers, the adorable characters, and the wacky humor provided primarily by Robin William's Ramon character all add to the fun factor.

Where the movie really succeeds is in its blending of societal/environmental concerns in a way that feels genuine, yet never becomes preachy. It balances the serious undertones by giving us characters that are colorful and engaging and, for the most part, realized in a manner that draws you into their world.

George Miller makes his first foray into the animated world in impressive fashion. He has made a film that is equal parts family safe weekend afternoon entertainment and slightly more subversive tale that takes a shot at conformity and organized religion and gives a new perspective on eco-horror. Fascinating to say the least, the penguin tale offers up considerably more than what it appears to be.

The penguin society places a high value on conformity, fall in line and have faith that all will be provided for by the Great Guin. When Mumble comes along, a character who is different from the rest, a penguin who chooses not to fall in line with what the society expects of him. For his decision he is kicked out of the society. It is a decision that sends our plucky young hero on a journey that introduces him to another society, one that places value on the individual. It is an eye opening trip that leads him to bring his newfound sense of worth home, where he is still not welcome for not falling in line.

In the end, all is well with the world of the penguins. Lessons are learned about how individuality can be a good thing and how over-fishing the Antarctic is bad. Wrapped around the lessons are tightly choreographed dance numbers, dizzying action, and an icy world barely contained on the widescreen frame. There is something that is strikingly original about this effort, it has a unique take on the direction and stylistic choices when compared to other computer animated films of the year. It is one of the most visually striking, the constantly moving camera, the expansive view of the ice, and those great action sequences, nothing touches the film in those respects. Plus, we get a good voice performance from Robin Williams. It seems that the reighns were held and he was kept focused on the task at hand, unlike the free reign mess that was his character in Robots.

Bottomline. Happy Feet will put a smie on your face, a song in your heart, and will actually stick with you long after your child tires of tapping his toes. It delivered more than I expected, it was a fun experience on the big screen and proves that George Miller is still as inventive as he was when he brought Max Rockatansky to the big screen so many years ago.

Highly Recommended.


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