What begins as a musically animated “March of the Penguins” ends like an after-school special edition of “An Inconvenient Truth.”
Audiences going to “Happy Feet” can expect a cute story about a penguin who, though different from all the other penguins, is eventually accepted by his peers and lives happily ever after. But the audience also leaves the theater with more than they bargained for: a raised social consciousness.
The film opens with Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman), a bachelorette penguin singing her “Heart Song,” the unique melody these Emperor penguins use to find their soul mate. She finds hers in the Southern-accented Memphis (Hugh Jackman) during a musical medley/mash-up of Prince’s “Kiss,” Lionel Richie’s “Hello” and Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel.”
The two lovers have an egg, which Memphis is left to guard while Norma Jean leaves with the other moms-to-be for fishing season. This proves a bad idea when, during one particularly wintry night, Memphis slips and drops his charge.
When Mumbles Happyfeet is born, he’s a little off, but absolutely adorable. From right out of the egg, Mumbles (Elijah Wood) marches — or rather, dances — to the beat of his own drum. His invocation of the late Gregory Hines could provoke considerable jealousy among audience members for the mad skills of the little CGI character. But while his mother accepts him, Mumbles’ father disapproves of his dancing, citing the very Hank Hill–esqe “It just ain’t penguin.”
During the first quarter of the movie, the audience learns of the shortage of fish in the surrounding ocean. There is a bit of religious commentary tied to the obvious environmental one as the colony’s Elders talk of angering the “Great Wind,” believing that by being more devout they can bring the fish back. The colony seems very religious, which is a bit much for most 8-year-olds to grasp.
Unlike the rest of the penguins in the colony, Mumbles has a terrible singing voice. Think cat under a car tire — or Fran Drescher. Ergo, he can’t find his “Heart Song,” which just sets him further apart from his flightless peers.
Fortunately, Mumbles meets a team of Adele penguins, a group of wise-cracking goofballs, who provide most of the comic relief. Robin Williams is hysterical with his comedic timing as the lead penguin, Ramón.
Lovelace (also Williams), a mystic Rockhopper guru, answers the questions of the Adele colony. Lovelace has plastic six-pack rings caught around his neck, and claims the rings were “bestowed upon [him] by mystic beings.”
Though it’s a cartoon, themes of religion, global warming and even sexual orientation (many critics believe that Mumbles’ social rejection could be symbolic of homophobia) are prevalent.
The Elders take notice of younger penguins grooving, and an odd science-vs.-God stand-off ensues. The film also includes a bizarre montage that begins with scenes including a corporate meeting of those directly responsible for fishing boats, a public rally protesting marine harvesting and angry debates at the U.N.
“Happy Feet,” while musically exhilarating and simplistic enough for children to enjoy its plot, has a thinly masked ulterior motive: to inform. Because of the film’s high entertainment value, younger audiences don’t even realize they are being enlightened about serious global issues. The music is fantastic, the characters are funny and adorable, and the plot, though random at times, is engaging.
Al Gore, eat your heart out.
“Happy Feet” was written by John Collee, Warren Coleman, George Miller and Judy Morris, and directed by George Miller.
“Happy Feet” received three stars.