The two trailers I saw for Happy Feet did not promise good things. The first just featured a load of tap dancing penguins – it didn’t tease me greatly. The second was remarkable in its lack of decent lines or an appealing premise. The notion of a penguin who can’t sing but can tap dance seemed not pleasantly ludicrous, but inanely ludicrous and a shameless excuse for lots of Disney-friendly songs.
Of course, Happy Feet isn’t a Disney or Dreamworks production, so I should have had more faith. It so happens that the premise yields a disarmingly engaging and unpredictable plot, the songs are few and inoffensive, and the humour is of a kind that can’t be easily pillaged for a soundbite. To cap it off, George Miller’s return to directing for the first time since Babe: Pig in the City in 1998 is visually wondrous for both its vistas and its propulsive action. It’s especially impressive given that this is Miller’s first foray into animation and Sydney studio Animal Logic’s first feature length animation. Happy Feet is a dazzlingly beautiful film, its Antarctica a fully-rendered environment that portrays the requisite sense of vastness. A scene where principal character Mumble (Elijah Wood) dives from an enormous cliff is gobsmacking, vertigo-inducing, and utterly thrilling. Our senses are forced to experience space again and again, the camera following the characters around as other birds and killer whales throw them about so the audience shares their disorientation and panic. Although not an animation expert, I’d wager that Happy Feet constitutes a landmark in how animated sequences are constructed.
But this is more than a show reel. The characters are appealing, with Mumble staggeringly cute as a baby in appearance and voice and engaging as an Elijah Wood-voiced ‘teen’. Robin Williams is fun as prophet Lovelace but hilarious as Ramon, a Spanish-sounding adelie penguin whose dialogue is often incomprehensible but hilarious in cadence (I want to get the DVD just to read the subtitles for his scenes). I’m curious about the choice to give the emperor penguins American accents and the adelies Spanish ones, and I can’t decide whether it’s harmless or crass (the grand, tallest species with the beautiful voices being American is somewhat off-putting). Sadly though, the supporting cast is otherwise dull, with Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy, and Hugo Weaving wasted in one-note roles that lack the colour and wit of a Pixar cast.
But Mumble and Williams sustain the film, as does the plot, unexpectedly veering into environmentalist areas that in retrospect make complete sense. The tap dancing gimmick actually facilitates a subtext, sans soapbox, that will get kids thinking about nature and the environment without boring them, and it’s a tremendous achievement by Miller. And the film is consistently exciting as the penguins discover the source of their woes, encountering killer whales and icebreakers in bravura sequences.
The only downside of Happy Feet is the lack of an appealing supporting cast, but that’s challenging when foregrounding a colony of penguins, especially since Miller strives for physical realism. Superficial differentiation and eccentric behaviours are therefore limited, but Miller does well with the restraints of his own premise. Happy Feet is quite an achievement, and establishes Animal Logic, not Dreamworks or Fox, as the potential Pixar competitor.