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Newborn Emperor penguin Mumble (voice of E.G. Daily) isn't like the other penguins. See, Emperors are known for their singing voices, which they use to attract mates. But Mumble doesn't sing (well, he tries, but he's not very good)--he dances. This is somewhat embarrassing for Memphis (Hugh Jackman), Mumble's father, but Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman), his mother, encourages her son to express himself in any way he chooses. The penguin elders view Mumble's dancing as sacrilege, believing his fancy footwork has angered the gods, who are in turn punishing the penguins by causing their food supply to dwindle. By the time he has reached what passes for penguin maturity, Mumbles (now voiced by Elijah Wood) has so enraged the elders that they cast him out. Believing that he knows the true reason behind the fishes' scarcity, Mumbles sets off on a journey to find and confront the creatures responsible.
CG cute animal flicks are a dime a dozen these days, as are penguin-centric flicks, which I suppose makes Happy Feet something of a bargain. I was completely unaware of this movie until the marketing machine went into overdrive last fall, and I had my doubts about it once I discovered who was involved. I mean, those pig flicks notwithstanding, what the hell was the man who gave the world The Road Warrior doing directing a freakin' cartoon about penguins who do covers of Prince tunes? And why the hell was he giving Robin Williams an opportunity to come in and ruin it by voicing more than one part? I'm still not sure of the answer to the first question, and I think the involvement of Williams (who is nowhere near as annoying as I had expected) has something to do with a pact someone signed in blood a couple of decades ago, but I do know that the end result isn't the debacle I had feared. Matter of fact, Happy Feet ranks as one of the better CG cute animal flicks of recent years, primarily because (and I know this doesn't make much sense) it doesn't try so hard to be a cute animal flick; there's not a lot here that seems intended to push Happy Meals and tie-in merchandise (can you imagine trying to market a stuffed penguin which sports a six-pack ring around its neck?). All told, this is one odd duck of an animated flick, which is arguably the movie's strongest asset as well as its biggest flaw.
Up until now I don't think anyone has come close to matching Pixar when it comes to the quality of GC animation, but the newcomers at Animal Logic may jut give Lasseter and his crew a run for their money. The animation here is amazingly fluid; the camera whips and swoops into, through and around the action. Miller and his team use a wide array of creatures to fill the wide Antarctic vistas until they are ready to burst, almost as if they were attempting to digitally ape David Lean. And speaking of the creatures, all of the characters are masterfully rendered, both in their physical appearance and movements. (Motion capture was employed for some of the more elaborate scenes, particularly the dance numbers, for which Savion Glover supplied Mumble's moves). And I suppose it wouldn't be a George Miller flick without a couple of great action set-pieces, and Happy Feet certainly doesn't disappoint. The aquatic hunt/ballet that precedes Mumble's expulsion from the tribe is simply stunning, as is a later encounter with a pair of killer whales, and there's a frenetic sequence in a an ice cave that trumps a similar scene in the original Ice Age.
Now here's where Miller runs into trouble: the script is a little all-over-the-place. It's a musical, an adventure, a comedy, a parable, and an environmental tract all rolled into one; including Miller, four writers are credited with the screenplay, and I wouldn't be surprised to learn they worked independently of one another (with its running themes of individualism and community, I think this is the first time in my life I've run across an animated film that arguably embraces the philosophies of both Ayn Rand and Karl Marx). The movie's charm, cleverness and blazing pace allow Miller to compensate for this schizophrenia during the first ninety minutes, but the final act (by far the weakest section) drags a bit, and the story's resolution, during which the environmentalism message is driven home with all the force of an out-of-control Mack Truck, is laughably naive. I'd be lying if I said this didn't dampen my enjoyment of the movie as a whole, but I'd also be lying if I said the closing moments come anywhere close to killing the movie.
Call it gorgeous, stunning, breathtaking, or reference quality--they all apply to this disc's 2.40:1 transfer; it's a visual wow from the first frame to the last. Like the animation itself, the transfer is bright, vivid, bold, and strikingly detailed, even in long shots and crowd scenes. I'm starting to think we're eventually going to run out of superlatives for these digital-to-digital transfers of CG films, but then again I suppose that's not really a bad thing.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack (as is too often the case with a format-neutral release, the audio on the Blu-ray disc gets the shaft) is a very active mix, with plentiful surround activity and deep, booming low-end action. The numerous songs make excellent use of the entire soundstage (what is it about Stevie Wonder's music that makes it so perfectly suited to surround mixes?), ambient effects and steered dialogue are seamlessly integrated, and the action sequences are appropriately lively. French and Spanish 5.1 EX tracks are also included, as are English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
You'd think such a technically superior, Oscar-winning blockbuster (I still say the statue should have gone to Cars) would receive the tricked-out treatment, but that's not the case here, as this disc's extras are the only truly disappointing aspect.
Things kick off with two deleted sequences (4 minutes total). One is an incredibly short bit featuring Mumble doing what he does best; the other features Mumble's encounter with a wise albatross voiced by the late Steve Irwin (who also appears in the film itself as an elephant seal).
In Dance Like a Penguin: Stomp to the Beat (5 minutes), Savion Glover conducts a lesson in how to dance like Mumbles.
I Love to Singa (8 minutes) is a classic Warner Bros. cartoon in which a stuffy owl is dismayed to discover that one of his newly hatched sons prefers singing jazz tunes over playing classical pieces with his siblings.
You also get two music videos. One is for Gia's (who?) "Hit Me Up," the other for Prince's "The Song of the Heart."
Rounding things out is the teaser trailer which originally led me to have my doubts about the movie.
Happy Feet is an undeniably flawed movie, but I can't deny that I found it fun, funny and damned entertaining. The extras leave much to be desired, but the technical end is topnotch, so this one still earns an easy recommendation.