Viewers weary of the increasing similarity of most animated films have a tonic at hand in “Happy Feet.” Likely to be affectionately dubbed “March of the Penguins: The Musical,” George Miller’s long-in-the-works dive into full-blown computer animation drapes a relatively conventional story, about a young penguin’s struggles over being “different,” in striking visuals, invigorating songs and lively characterizations. Although the film might prove a bit too different for a minority of parents, general reaction is likely figures to be one of jaw-dropping amazement, sparking merry B.O. through the holidays and further abundance in home entertainment incarnations. Extensive simultaneous Imax engagements will be particularly popular.
There is no mistaking “Happy Feet” as anything but the work of a real filmmaker; in terms of composition, camera movement and editing, the pic is conceived as a “real” movie, and emerges as one of the very best directed animated films on record. Not surprisingly from the force behind the “Babe” movies, the attention to detail is phenomenal, the humor ample.
But the story is inescapably serious on both personal and societal levels. While countless moppet-targeted films have taught the lesson that the oddball shall prevail and that everyone is gifted in a particular way, looming over everything here is the specter of aliens — human beings, that is — who leave ominous traces of their comings and goings on the icy wastes of Antarctica and impinge upon the penguins’ supply of fish. The environmental themes are familiar, but Miller superbly manifests the threat in a manner both tactile and hauntingly poetic.
Fine while up and flying, pic has trouble with both takeoff and landing. Intro of emperor penguin society consists of a virtual assault of mostly soulful R&B tunes. Initial seg, in fact, reps a recapitulation of “March of the Penguins,” as the moms lay eggs, hand them off to the dads and head off for distant feeding waters while the males face the bitter, months-long night of incubation.
Conformity reigns as this community’s highest value, with strict compliance enforced by wizened elders, wonderfully craggy figures who look like they were chiseled by Rodin. It’s expected emperor penguins will have beautiful voices. Newborn tyke Mumble can’t put two notes together, but the little bugger sure can dance; he’s born tapping, with speed and moves the equal of tapmaster Savion Glover, who provided the motion-capture terpsing for the furry bird.
Mumble’s mom (voiced by Nicole Kidman) doesn’t mind her son’s eccentricity, but his dad (Hugh Jackman) complains that “it just ain’t penguin.” Despite the great song-and-dance potential exhibited by Mumble (voiced after infancy by Elijah Wood) and his dazzlingly voiced pal Gloria (Brittany Murphy), Mumble is eventually exiled by the high priest (Hugo Weaving).
And so begin Mumble’s wanderings, riddled with unknown dangers. In the first and most child-frightening of three big-action set pieces, each more dazzling than the last, Mumble is attacked by an unusually toothsome seal, only to be taken under the wing of a bunch of small, Mexican-accented penguins fronted by Ramon (Robin Williams).
Mumble is embraced as “Big Guy,” and begins to see there’s more to the world than the rigid realm of Emperor Land. In another fantastic action scene, Mumble and his five buddies go careening like so many live toboggans down a vast run of slopes and bowls and cliffs at breathtaking speed until they are caught up short by the sight of an alien visitation.
The band of wayfarers enlarges again with the addition of rockhopper penguin Lovelace (Williams again, in soulful mode), a self-styled guru. The odyssey briefly reunites Mumble, who retains his immature gray feathers throughout, with Gloria and his emperor brethren. But with food in diminished supply, Mumble sets out for the Forbidden Shore, where elephant seals (including one voiced by the late Steve Irwin) warn him he’ll encounter the dreaded annihilator aliens. He also crosses paths with two killer whales in a scene of eye-popping choreographed action.
Mumble’s close encounter with Earth’s dominators and the detritus of their activities, powerfully imagined from the bird’s point of view, proves thoroughly sobering; following logically, pic would end on a quite dire note. Given this impossibility, Miller and fellow screenwriters John Collee, Judy Morris and Warren Coleman contrive a way to deliver a relatively upbeat ending, one that doesn’t completely dismiss the peril but still seems concocted.
While having been nimbly edited for momentum and flow, “Happy Feet” employs long takes and the moving “camera” considerably more than do most animated films. Result is a film of heightened elegance and precision as well as a strong sense of space; the widescreen frame can barely contain the vast landscapes, as well as a bulging cast of happy-footed “extras” that would have turned Busby Berkeley green with envy. Pic reps the most ambitious and successful use of the motion-capture technique to date.
Musical elements, overseen by composer John Powell, are extraordinarily diverse in style. At times, the familiarity of song selections proves tiresome and overbearing. At others, however, freshness of the covers and novelty of the contexts are genuinely funny, among them a Spanish-lingo version of “My Way,” an ironic rendering of “Leader of the Pack” and some Beach Boys-backed surfing unlike anyone in Malibu has ever done.
A Babel’s brew of accents comprise the spirited voicings, with Williams doing fine double-duty in focused funny mode. End credits, which contain more than 1,000 names, may be the longest on record.