Regardless of how you feel about its recent Academy Award win, if nothing else Happy Feet deserves some sort of trophy for being the most idiosyncratic, surreal, and just plain odd animated movie to hit theater screens in recent years. Directed by George Miller (creator of the Mad Max trilogy), the film starts out as a remake of Moulin Rouge! starring singing penguins, turns into a bizarro retelling of Footloose, segues into Finding Nemo, and finally wraps up with about 20 minutes of Greenpeace propaganda pounded into the audience's head with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Was it the best animated movie released in 2006? Probably not. Is it nice to look at? Certainly. Is it entertaining? Sporadically.
At the bottom of the Earth, we're introduced to a colony of Emperor penguins in the full bloom of (chastely depicted) mating season, which in this movie means that every single bird is belting out a pop song. Prince, The Beatles, Lionel Richie, The Beach Boys, Ricky Martin, TLC, Boyz II Men, you name it, all sung at once in a raucous harmony of tunes flowing into and out of one another. Each penguin, we learn, has a distinctive "heart song" that defines him or her as an individual, and that each calls out to find their perfectly compatible mate. Two such soul mates, Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman in a grating Marilyn Monroe impersonation) and Memphis (Hugh Jackman embarrassing himself with an Elvis drawl) fall instantly in love. This results a season later in the birth of Mumble (E.G. Daily and Elijah Wood at different ages), the cutest little black and white flightless bird you ever will see.
But there's a problem. Mumble doesn't seem to have a heart song of his own.
While all of his school friends are learning to voice their beautiful melodies, Mumble's best attempts come out as discordant screeching. Worse, he just can't stop moving his feet in rhythm, a compulsion that upsets the flock's stern religious elders who have declared any form of dance an insult to their gods (did no one think to ask John Lithgow to do a voice here?). As proof, they point to the flagging fish harvests. Clearly, Mumble's transgressions will be the death of them all. After defying authority one time too many and having the audacity to involve other penguins in his jittering sickness, the adolescent Mumble is eventually banished from the flock, vowing as he leaves to seek out the true cause of their food shortage. His mission will lead him out of Antarctica entirely, in chase after the mysterious "aliens" and their huge floating machines that have been stealing fish from the local waters.
Happy Feet has some gorgeous imagery and terrific animation, from the sprawling Antarctic ice sheets to the thousands of distinctly individualized penguins who populate it. Produced by an upstart studio called Animal Logic, some of the bigger crowd scenes, such as penguin chicks' first attempt at swimming, have both an impressive epic scope and attention to detail that rivals the best that even Pixar has ever offered. The pop songs are catchy, and the movie has several exciting action sequences, including the flight from a dangerous leopard seal and a massive avalanche. Depending on your tolerance for him, Robin Williams shows up in two penguin roles (as a Latino homeboy and an evangelist religious charlatan) that many viewers will find hilarious and many others will find irritating and possibly offensive.
And as for the story? Well, I guess "peculiar" is the best word to describe it.
It starts as your typical kiddie treacle about the importance of finding your own voice in the crowd and standing up for your beliefs, but then progresses into a ham-fisted environmentalist message that, though well-meaning, is misguided at best and frankly idiotic at its climax. I have no desire to turn this into a political screed. I actually sympathize with the movie's intentions, but it goes about them entirely the wrong way. The message the film delivers in the end is that the best way to save the world is just to be cute. That is simply not the right way to make this point. What if the penguins weren't cute? What about the insects in the rainforests of South America? I guess they don't deserve to be saved if they can't sing and dance. What about all those fish that the movie begs us to save from overharvesting, only so that they can get fed to the penguins instead? Are they not cute enough to deserve protection from the penguins? The movie's preachy yet downright moronic finale is a real head-scratcher that even goes so far as implying to children that the world's environmental problems have been all solved at the end, so they shouldn't bother worrying about them anymore. What was George Miller thinking?
Happy Feet is a unique movie, very entertaining in parts, but also just a little bit awful. Maybe more than a little bit. Did they really give an Oscar to this thing?
The HD DVD:
Happy Feet debuts on the HD DVD format courtesy of Warner Home Video. The disc is a Combo release with a standard DVD version on the flip side. A comparable (non-Combo) Blu-ray edition is also available.
The disc's interactive menus are accompanied by annoying clicking sound effects for every selection that can be turned off if you desire (and I recommend it).
HD DVD discs are only playable in a compatible HD DVD player. They will not function in a standard DVD player (except in cases like this where the disc specifically includes a secondary DVD version) or in a Blu-Ray player. Please note that the star rating scales for video and audio are relative to other High Definition disc content, not to traditional DVD.
The Happy Feet HD DVD is encoded on disc in High Definition 1080p format using VC-1 compression. The movie is presented in its theatrical aspect ratio of approximately 2.40:1 with letterbox bars at the top and bottom of the 16:9 frame.
A direct-digital transfer from the original animation files, this is a gorgeous, razor-sharp image with vibrant colors and an amazing sense of detail. The contrast range extends from deep blacks to gleaming whites, and the picture has a terrific sense of depth, especially in those huge wide shots with thousands of penguins filling the frame to the far distance. There's very little to complain about here, though I did notice just a smidge of banding in some subtle color gradients (particularly in the underwater scenes), but even that is only noticeable if you make it a point to look for it. In most respects, this disc is worthy of becoming a home theater show-off piece.
The Happy Feet HD DVD is not flagged with an Image Constraint Token and will play in full High Definition quality over an HD DVD player's analog Component Video outputs.
The photo images used in this article were taken from the DVD edition for illustrative purposes only, and are not intended to demonstrate HD DVD picture quality.
The movie's soundtrack is provided in Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 or lossless Dolby TrueHD 5.1 formats (the Blu-ray edition has only standard Dolby Digital 5.1). This is of course a musical, and the fidelity of the songs has pleasing warmth and expansiveness. The sound mix also features some extremely immersive surround activity. I found the mix a little too bassy, however. The low end is a bit boomy, both in the score and certain growly voices such as the narration by the Lovelace character. The song vocals are also occasionally obscured. It's a good soundtrack, satisfying for the most part, but leaves a little room for improvement.
Subs & Dubs:
Optional subtitles – English, English captions for the hearing impaired, French, or Spanish.
Alternate language tracks - French or Spanish DD+ 5.1.
All of the bonus features on this HD DVD title are recycled from the DVD edition. All of the video supplements from the DVD have carried over, but unfortunately they don't amount to much of substance.
The only thing that appears to be missing from the DVD edition is the printed insert with information about the most eco-friendly types of seafood.
- Mumble Meets a Blue Whale (4 min., HD) – This extra scene (in full High-Def quality) featuring the voice of Steve Irwin was completed after the movie had been released. George Miller provides a brief video introduction.
- A Happy Feet Moment (30 sec., HD) – A very short, silly outtake moment created for the movie's publicity campaign.
- I Love to Singa (8 min., SD) – This classic Merrie Melodies animated short about singing owls has some narrative similarities to Happy Feet. Unlike the classic shorts on the Adventures of Robin Hood and March of the Penguins HD DVDs, Warner has disappointingly not restored or remastered this piece into High Definition.
- Dance Like a Penguin: Stomp to the Beat (5 min., SD) – Choreographer Savion Glover demonstrates basic tap dancing techniques.
- Music Video: "Hit Me Up" by Gia (3 min., SD) – An annoying tune by a teen pop princess of the moment.
- Music Video: "The Song of the Heart" by Prince (3 min., SD) – Not one of the Paisley One's better songs, the video here is comprised entirely of clips from the movie very poorly integrated with the music.
- Trailer (1 min., SD) – A teaser focused on Robin Williams. The movie had better trailers than this.
I'm at a loss for how to rate Happy Feet in the final analysis. If you're a parent, you probably have no choice but to buy a copy no matter what I say here. It's certainly an unusual movie, and many children seem to enjoy it (though to be fair, many others complain of finding it "boring"). As an adult, if you think about it too much the movie may drive you crazy. For what it's worth, the HD DVD has excellent picture and sound that will make for a first-rate home theater demo. Is that worth a purchase? My best instincts tell me to advise a rental.
March of the Penguins (HD DVD) - Penguins
Monster House (Blu-ray) - Animation
The Polar Express (HD DVD) - Animation
HD Review Index
High-Def Revolution – DVDTalk's HD Column
Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD Player