a critiQal film review Happy Feet (2006)

Plot: Mumbles (Wood) is different from the other Emperor penguins in Antarctica. While they sing their heartsong to each other, he tap dances. When he is forced out of his home for being different, he sets out to find the reason behind why more and more fish are disappearing each year.

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And our final film of our 3-part movie marathon? You guessed it, that tap-crazed penguin animated musical, Happy Feet. Everyone we know who has seen it has been raving about this one since it hit theaters, so we definitely wanted to check it out. But then again, some of those folks liked Spider-Man (2002) too, so would we be able to trust their judgment, or would we wish we had just tap-danced ourselves out of the room before we wasted our time?

The voices in Happy Feet, though full of big-name stars, are largely indistinguishable, with one stand-out: Robin Williams, in 2 different roles. While this makes those 2 characters a bit hard to distinguish when both are on-screen, it doesn’t detract too much from the film, as Robin is able to throw a different spin on each of them. The other voice actors (once I figured out who they were – mostly through IMdB), did a great job of making their voices blend in with the rest of the cast.

Part of the problem in watching animated films with recognizable actors voicing characters is the slight inability to put the voice to the character, especially if that character isn’t human in appearance. The same problem showed up in Cars (2006), as it was hard to put Owen Wilson’s voice to the car at first – but that film was so involving, the viewers soon became so immersed in the film they stopped picturing Owen’s face when hearing his voice.

Most of the famous voices in Happy Feet – among them Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving and Hugh Jackman – get around this problem by disguising their voices somewhat, so that they aren’t instantly recognizable. This works astoundingly well, and the filmmakers have the added bonus of beginning to introduce plot right away without worrying that the viewers are still picturing faces with voices, thus keeping them a bit distracted.

The plot, while incredibly far-fetched, works for Happy Feet. Introducing music as a way of finding a mate among Emperor penguins is a bit weird, but it does set the stage for the musical portion of the film, which takes everything from Elvis Presley to Salt N’ Pepa and “re-imagines” them to relate to penguins. While the singing is good enough to be worth listening to, the musical numbers seem to fly by with increasing pace for the first half of the film, leaving them to collect as a giant jumble in the viewer’s mind. A few less songs and a little more of a pause between them wouldn’t have been bad.

Then, just as the viewer thinks that Mumbles the tap-dancing penguin has fit back into his society and gained the girl of his dreams, he is kicked out and forced to find the blatant environmental message, er, the reason the fish the penguins survive on are depleting. Thus begins a harrowing journey for Mumbles and friends across the harsh icy wastelands of Antarctica (which takes all winter, apparently, as the sun sets and then rises again – remember, it’s Antarctica, so that only happens twice a year). The end of the journey is even more far-fetched than the journey itself, and Happy Feet ends up wrapping up with even more incredible absurdness.

Despite all of that, Happy Feet works as a film, largely thanks to it’s stunning animation. With the penguins looking real enough to touch (yet finely-tuned to show a few human characteristics to make them more kid-friendly than ever), most would have been satisfied with that.

But not these filmmakers. They toss in good renditions of seals (both harbor and elephant), as well as some of the best-looking computer animated humans ever seen. While the technology may still not quite be there to make humans exactingly lifelike, the filmmakers slyly get around this by never showing a close-up of a human. Instead, they block the human partially from view using reflective glass or go for the wide-angle shot, giving us a human at more of a distance. Brilliantly done, their techniques will probably not even be noticed for what they are (hiding their inability to create lifelike humans up close) by most of the viewing public.

While the environmental message is a bit overly blatant, and Happy Feet falls off a step cliff into sheer ridiculousness about 2/3 of the way through the film, it’s still great fun to watch. While it’s not the best animated movie ever, it does go a long way towards showing the good that can be done with a kid-friendly film – without sacrificing it’s appeal.

Plus, the tap-dancing is just cool.

Definitely worth watching, Happy Feet provides a fun – and slightly educational – way to spend an afternoon with the family.

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