Saturday, June 23, 2007

Movie Review: Happy Feet

Emperor penguins find their true love by singing. This animated movie takes that idea and plays with it: what if a baby penguin was born who can't sing, but who can tap dance?

So the directors pick two Australians, Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman, to give voice to two characters named Norma Jean and Memphis. Norma Jean has a high, breathy voice and Memphis sounds like Elvis (I guess "Graceland" wasn't masculine enough).

They do a creditable job singing the duet that brings them love and an egg.

Norma Jean goes off to fish; Memphis keeps the egg warm. There is some interesting speculation on penguin mysticism, during which Memphis looses the egg. He finds it and tucks it back under his belly, but when the egg is late in hatching and the chick cannot sing, Memphis feels guilty. He is determined that his son be seen as normal; otherwise, Memphis has to admit that he screwed up the most important job he had.

The chick is named "Mumbles." Why is not explained because he speaks just fine. He just can't sing. His dancing intrigues and captivates his peers, but it horrifies the elders who demand Mumbles be cast out of the colony. (Why the Head Penguin Priest speaks with a brogue is not explained.) The Elders hope this action will please the Penguin God and bring back the fish.

Mumbles goes out into the world and discovers another species of penguins who are smaller but who appreciate his moves. These penguins, including Ramon (voiced by Robin Williams) all speak with a Spanish accent. They also mangle the English language the way most Spanish (or Italian) characters do. Yet I don't remember any PC police questioning this. These penguins bring pebbles to their intended as a sign of their affection.

Lovelace (also voiced by Williams) is the head prophet/guru of this colony. He is clearly another species of penguin all together and he sounds suspiciously like a famous African-American preacher who is often in the news. (Again--not a peep from the PC police. Is it because of Robin William's political views?) Around his neck is the plastic six-pack ring, which he takes as a sign of favor. Of course, later those rings prove to be nearly fatal.

Mumbles, who has heard stories of strange aliens without feathers, asks Lovelace if he has ever seen any and if these aliens could be why the fish are gone. (We know the answer to this one, right?) Not satisfied with the non-answer Lovelace gives him, Mumbles is discouraged. But when Lovelace begins to choke because the six-pack rings are too tight, Mumbles, Lovelace, and the gang go off to find the aliens to see if they can release Lovelace from his bonds. Mumbles is also sure he can persuade the aliens to stop taking all the fish.

And that's where the movie starts to break down.

The late Steve Irwin is the voice of an elephant seal. He's allowed to keep his accent. We're never told what nationality the aliens are, although there is a scene with a church with a cross in the background. (The church looks vaguely like the one at Fort Ross in California, although the cross is Western.)

I don't know enough about the habits of factory fishermen in Antarctica to comment on the accuracy of the portrayal. Are there elephant seals in Antarctica as well? I don't know. I know they are in California and that they travel to the Arctic after giving birth. I know there are Orcas (killer whales) in the North Atlantic and the Arctic and there are factory fishing ships in the North Pacific. While I wouldn't be surprised that the writers and directors played a little fast and loose with the facts, I'm not certain they did.

DD#2 likes the music, which is basically covers of several classics and several modern pop-type songs. I found it just okay. Some of the songs Mumbles starts tapping to didn't have what I consider a "tapping beat," although the ending, where the penguins do more of a "stepping" type dance, was more effective. DD#1 and I were both very disappointed in the ending--we felt it was really weak. When I complained that Happy Feet didn't take better advantage of the differences in behaviors among penguins species, DD#1 pointed out that Happy Feet was released after March of the Penguins, so people were familiar with penguin species and behavior.

Penguins are among my personal favorites in the animal kingdom. I can see where they are fun to animate, to anthropomorphize (is that even a word?). And the art directors do a terrific job. Feathers blow in the wind. Mumbles coloring suggests a tuxedo and spats. The important penguins have individual physical characteristics that set them apart.

Still, this movie was a major disappointment for me. I didn't come away "tapping my feet." I didn't understand why the characters behaved the way they did. The penguins sure didn't look like they were starving and they had enough energy to waddle their way across Antarctic wastes. There were some cute moments, but not enough of them. The songs were just okay. I think we spend $1.99 buying this movie through On Demand (the regular rate is $3.99 I think), which was about all this was worth.

I had heard rumblings about "a gay theme" in this movie. If there is, it's only in the final scene where father and son reconcile and Mumbles tells his dad, "But I'm happy with who I am!" Okay--but I've had similar discussions with my young adult children and they are not gay (as far as I know). Frankly, that's the least of this movie's problems.

On the March Hare scale: 2 out of 5 Golden Tickets.