I’m going to agree with what most reviewers have said – for the first half, perhaps the first three quarters of this movie, it feels like it could be an instant classic, possibly even the best animated comedy ever. And then it all gets spoilt at the end.
Happy Feet has a clever and charming basis. Our anthropomorphic Emperor Penguins attract the loves of their lives by singing their ‘heart songs’. Taking cues from Moulin Rouge, the film’s soundtrack is a delightfully tongue-in-cheek mash-up of popular tunes, with numbers from The Beatles, Queen and The Beach Boys as well as cheekier nods to more hip-hop-flavoured tracks like Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’ (obviously, just the refrain); at one point, a penguin throws in, ‘Let’s talk about eggs, baby / Let’s talk about you and me.’ While it’s all fantastically silly (all I could have hoped for was a few more real tap-dancing-era numbers; a brief My Way snippet in Spanish didn’t cut it), it’s also quite uplifting, and the opening scene is done perfectly: Nicole Kidman, pretending to be Marilyn Monroe, sings Prince’s ‘Kiss’, only to be joined by Hugh Jackman’s best Elvis impression. ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ joins the medley, and we know the two of them are meant to be. The peerless CG on an iMAX screen, coupled with the superlative sound, make for a breathtaking spectacle.
Jackman’s character, the subtly-named Memphis, drops the couple's egg during a long, cold night, and when little Mumble hatches, it’s clear he is a little bit different. He can’t sing a note, but he can dance. Dancing, however, is taboo. ‘It’s just not penguin’, his father tells him, and by the time Mumble is grown (albeit not having lost his downy grey feathers like all his peers), voiced now by Elijah Wood in a suitably obvious, harmless way, he is an outcast, indulged only by his mother (even more subtly named Norma Jean) - as well as his childhood friend and love interest Gloria, huskily voiced by Brittney Murphy. Even the latter can’t help hurting his feelings when his tone-deaf squawks ruin her spirited performance of ‘Somebody to Love’, and Mumble’s undignified exit leads to his being chased by a leopard seal in one of several brilliantly-realised underwater sequences, and ends up meeting a gaggle of funny little Adelie penguins, who speak with broad Latino accents. Adelies place less emphasis on singing, so Mumbo fits in and starts learning to be proud of himself as he is – Hakuna Matata and all that.
It’s a very typical kiddie plot. In their first full movie, Sydney-based CG effects studio Animal Logic are playing the Pixar game – giving us a very familiar plot, overlaying it with a clever and appealing gimmick and then treating it with warmth, humour and respect – and actually beating them at it. Even Robin Williams, who plays two roles and does them both with silly accents (he’s the lead Latino, and also a prognosticating penguin with a silly soul voice a la Barry White), doesn’t go too far and ruin the humour. He’s fairly subdued (for him, anyway) and it works well. This is when the Ugly Duckling goes back and wins everyone over with the power of dance, when Rudolf shows that despite growing up as an outcast, he can do something no-one else can, and they all live happily ever after, right? Well, yes and no.
While this inevitable plot conclusion begins, religious fundamentalists (led by a crooked old thing with another silly accent – this time Hugo Weaving as a raving Scotsman), unable to accept any deviation, blame the shortage of fish on Mumble, and he sets off on a quest to appeal to the strange beings who are eating all their fish – human beings. After a disjointed trek, Mumble ends up following a fishing boat and ends up in a zoo, where he begins to lose his mind (especially since he’s surrounded by other penguins who talk like HAL. Explicitly. Even calling him ‘Dave’), until he tap-dances for a girl. They let him go back to the wild with a tracking device, and the young penguins are easily persuaded to dance, while the elders condemn them. Then the humans show up in a helicopter and the elders decide that’s proof enough that their god doesn’t exist (see, this is why tackling theological debates in your penguin movie isn’t gonna be THAT hard-hitting) and dance too. The world sees this dance and as a result, decide to fish the Antarctic waters less. I blink at the screen, stunned.
I understand Babe director George Miller wanting to make things a little more ambitious. I understand wanting an ecological message. I understand the need for a bit of a serious quest aspect to the film. I even understand a stab at the religious right. But this? This deus ex machina? This guilt-trip? This total oversimplification of how food chains and habitats work? This implication that humanity cares about cute things that dance, but is totally indifferent if they don’t, or if they’re ugly sea elephants? This idea that the ostracised will find acceptance just because they overwhelm their peers with things they haven’t seen? Okay, looking on the plus side, it was all so rushed that I doubt kids will really take it in or care, and will love the film anyway, but I take even films about tap-dancing penguins seriously in story terms, and this was a real shame.
Take the tried-and-tested route, and a tried-and-tested climax is advised – although a brave sad ending in the zoo would have won points from me, though doubtless never have gotten past screening audiences. As it is, yes, the film was brilliant fun, clever, warm and witty. But we don’t have a penguin’s ability to open our throats; we won’t swallow whatever you chuck at us, as long as it looks about right. What a shame, since even with its flaws the film remains very good indeed.
(originally written 10.12.06. Happy Feet 2 here)