Penguins are big of late, especially Emperor Penguins, some of which can be upwards of four, four-and-a-half feet tall. But, of course, they are also big in the media, what with 2005's "March of the Penguins" winning an Oscar for Best Documentary Film and 2006's "Happy Feet" winning an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year. What's more, penguins have always been big. Think back on all those penguins you've seen in television commercials; or Walter Lantz's Chilly Willy of the 1950s and 60s; or the penguins in Disney's "Silly Symphonies" of the 1930s. Seems like our love affair with these courtly, cuddly, communal creatures will never end.
"Happy Feet" is the brainchild of George Miller, the movie's co-writer and director, who previously brought us "Babe," "Babe: Pig in the City," "The Witches of Eastwick," and all of the "Mad Max" movies. So you know going in the guy's got talent, and "Happy Feet" is going to show a good deal of creativity. It does; just not quite enough to keep this grown-up from yawning a few times in the process.
The big "however" about the film is that I can't remember another of Miller's works so overflowing with lessons, themes, and morals. And not just a few related lessons but ones going off in all directions. I have to admit that in more than a couple of places the film's transitions left me wondering what the heck was happening. Although I thought at first it might have been because of a few dull stretches catching me daydreaming, I soon came to realize it was because the screenplay sometimes moves from one episode to another without much rhyme or reason. Among other things, the film conveys such varied messages as it's OK to be different; everyone needs to fit in and belong; humanity should be open-minded; superstition, tradition, even religion, should not cloud our better judgment; opposite minds can and should get along; and, ultimately, we as a people should exercise greater responsibility over our environment. Save the penguins, save the whales, save Antarctica, save the world. These are noble, valuable, and in some cases very personal sentiments that Miller has every right to include in his film, particularly a film aimed at children who need all the good counsel they can get; but, understand, they are also sentiments that can be somewhat tedious and redundant for adults.
Fortunately, the movie counterbalances its wayward story line about a young penguin who would rather dance than sing like the rest of his kind with, perhaps ironically, its fine songs, splendid dancing, and glorious CGI animation. Make no mistake: The movie is a musical from beginning to end, and you will find just about every style of music in it, most of it well-known, previously recorded material, from pop and rock to gospel and country, from hip-hop to blues, you name it.
Besides that, the computer animation will knock your socks off, if you don't mind bare feet. The picture is not just detailed, it's almost photorealistic. It looks practically like "March of the Penguins" except with music. Considering that most of the movie takes place in the Antarctic, where colors are predominantly shades of gray and white, the movie is brimming over with the vitality of its hues, with little splashes of color showing up all the more vividly for their stark surroundings. Then, the artists' ability to create literally thousands of penguins that in real life pretty much all look alike and personalize them with individual characteristics is quite a trick. So, the picture is a treat for the eyes and ears.
I wish, though, there was as much inspiration in the voice characterizations as there is in visuals. Robin Williams, playing several parts, invests his usual imagination and energy in the roles and keeps things moving along. Hugh Jackman as an Elvis clone and Hugo Weaving as a village elder also do their best to inject a little life into their characters. But, honestly, if I had not read on the keep case that Elijah Wood voiced the main character and that Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, Anthony LaPaglia, Steve Irwin (who died shortly after completing the film), and others were also in it, I doubt that I would have recognized their speaking voices, they're so nondescript.
There is also another tiny oddity in the film. When the main character, a young Emperor penguin named Mumble, goes off in search of answers to his problems, he runs into a community of smaller penguins he's never seen before. Now, here's the thing: These little guys all speak English in Hispanic accents. Is this, I wonder, because they are all from south of Emperor Land's border? Or because the filmmakers are suggesting that Hispanic people are short? Figuring that surely a film taking such high moral ground as this one does would not stoop to such obvious ethnic stereotypes, I concluded by giving the filmmakers the benefit of the doubt and assumed they were just trying to be inventive. Or not.
Despite the film getting more than a bit erratic and preachy, "Happy Feet" is generally cute and entertaining, particularly for youngsters, and it is surely a delight to the senses. Don't be surprised if the dancing, at least, has you up on your feet and tapping your toes.
The picture quality is nothing short of spectacular. The disc renders the movie's original 2.40:1 theatrical dimensions well, with a digital image as sharp as we have come to expect from high-bit-rate, standard-definition technology and CGI graphics. The screen is quite clean, and the colors are sometimes glowing. Blacks and whites are strong, which is specially important since they predominate throughout the movie. In short, the detailed computer-graphic animation looks terrific.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is just as attractive as the video. The dynamic impact and the tremendously deep bass are standouts, as is the very wide front-channel stereo spread. There is not as much information in the rear-channels as I might have expected, but there is enough to provide a realistic bloom to the music and a few impressive surround effects.
Hmmm, let's see. Warner Bros. spends $100,000,000 on "Blood Diamond," which earns about half that amount at the box office and wins no Academy Awards, so the studio issues it in a Two-Disc Special Edition. "Happy Feet" costs less money to make, earns almost four times as much at the box office, and wins an Oscar. The studio issues it on a single disc with only a few bonuses. Life is unfair. Or, maybe since the movie won the award, the folks at WB are planning on a future double dip. We'll see.
What we've got first up on the present, single-disc edition are two, new, fully animated extra sequences: "Mumble Meets a Blue Whale," about three minutes long, with Steve Irwin; and "A Happy Feet Moment," about thirty seconds. Both scenes are in anamorphic widescreen, and the rest of the extras are non-anamorphic. Next up is "Dance Like a Penguin: Stomp to the Beat," a five-minute private dance lesson wherein Savion Glover, dancer and co-choreographer for the film, shows us how he helped the penguins dance. After that, there are two music videos, "Hit Me Up" with Gia and "The Song of the Heart" with Prince, each about three minutes; some DVD-ROM items I did not access; and the 1936 classic cartoon "I Love to Singa," in full-screen and Technicolor.
The extras continue with twenty-eight scene selections; a widescreen, anamorphic theatrical trailer; and English, French, and Spanish spoken languages and subtitles. In addition, there are promos at start-up only for "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix," "Fred Claus," "Deep Sea: IMAX," "The Nativity Story," "Nancy Drew," and a brief environmental plea. Inside the keep case, you'll not find a chapter index, but you will find a "Seafood Watch" national seafood guide, 2007, courtesy of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Finally, the keep case comes enclosed in a colorful, embossed cardboard slipcover.
Frankly, I'm not sure why the Academy felt that "Happy Feet" was a better film than "Cars." Maybe they figured that with Al Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth," they could make it a green year all the way around. Certainly, "Happy Feet" was one of the more deserving films of the year, and it has a wide set of moral values going for it. The Wife-O-Meter liked the movie slightly more than I did, citing the importance of its environmental issues in particular. But I found the plot rather vague, the connections tenuous, the messages scattered and overdone, and the action somewhat static. The story line and characters seemed perfect for a thirty or forty-minute cartoon, but not for one lasting close to two hours.
Nevertheless, the infectious singing and dancing and splendid animation help make up for some of the film's deficiencies, and there is no doubt the movie will entertain and enlighten children. Children of all ages may be another matter.