Title: Happy Feet
Genre: Animation, Adventure, Comedy
Director: George Miller, Warren Coleman
Screenwriters: George Miller, John Collee
Starring: Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman
George Miller’s Happy Feet is a family film that has taken to heart the treacly message of countless other family films: it dares to be different. In a somewhat higher-order twist, it winds up peddling the very same moral, but it does so via a courageously blatant allegory allegory about parents and their gay children by way of a fierce environmentalist screed. Meanwhile, the movie is funny and charming, if also suffering from a surfeit of Robin Williams; even the above-the-title voice cast acquits itself nicely.
Wait, how’s that again? Environmentalist screed? Screed, yes, because while Happy Feet eloquently conveys its message to children, hovering just out of their reach is a seethingly bitter thesis: Humanity, fickle and myopic, ignores the prospect of environmental catastrophe, happy to stare thoughtlessly at the creatures in their local zoo, until something irresistibly cute comes along (a group of tap-dancing penguins, say) and everyone springs into action. It’s no coincidence that polar bear cubs make excellent posterkids for global warming.
Miller’s approach to this subject matter is disarmingly direct, and the film is powerful enough that though they won’t grasp the range of its implications, even kids may get a sense of its anger. Happy Feet doesn’t unveil much of this until its feverishly-paced final half hour, but it drops hints throughout; there’s a lovely and subtle moment when a cascade of collapsing ice briefly reveals a mysterious machine tumbling into the ocean. Ominous references to an “alien abduction” by a nasty bird with something yellow and odd tied around its foot are more obvious, but reveal a meticulousness of construction rarely present in films aimed at the younger set.
So there’s a lot to get through before reaching the core of the movie, and fortunately the story proper is highly watchable and even intriguing in its own right. There’s a share of baby penguin cuteness, but even that’s done creatively, and the main conflict — to his parents’ horror, a hatchling is gifted with a flair for tap dancing instead of the usual “heartsong” emperor penguins use to find their mate — is rife with significance and genuinely touching. Happy Feet earns its musical stripes through the use of pop music ranging from modern R&B; to, brilliantly, “Leader of the Pack.”
Any problems are on the margins. I mentioned an excess of Robin Williams, and indeed, though he’s no doubt a talented voice artist, having him play several frenetic characters is a little much. The protagonist’s reconciliation with his father makes for a very strange scene that breaks the momentum of the last half hour. The appearance of a species of groovy penguins who all seem to speak like Tony Montana is vaguely racist — but Happy Feet is so cheerful about it that it doesn’t much matter.
People are starting to complain about the “talking animal” cartoons, and indeed they may have jumped the talking shark around Over the Hedge. But Happy Feet is so unique, it can’t be mentioned in the same breath as the recent flock of mediocrity. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it.