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Movie Review: Happy Feet

Happy Feet
Directed by George Miller
Written by Miller, Warren Coleman, John Collee, and Judy Morris
Warner Bros.

This reminds me of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoon where a bunch of undistinguishable penguins are standing around, and one in the middle is singing, “I just gotta be me…”  Larson explained in The Pre-History of The Far Side that the funny, of course, came from the penguin singing a ballad of individuality in the middle of “a sea of commonality.”  Later, someone had changed his cartoon for some other kind of media, where the singing penguin had been colored yellow.  This is the kind of thing that cartoons do all the time.  Even though it’s not genetically correct, the central penguin is always distinguishable from his brethren, as if not only is his personality different but his whole DNA is, too.

For a moment in Happy Feet, I thought inventive director George Miller (Babe: Pig in the City, Mad Max) was about to do a sort of Moulin Rouge in cartoon form; mostly a musical, with a central character struggling to find his voice and maybe, finally, being able to belt one out at the very end.  Alas, we have the trappings of a usual adventure, with absolutely incredible animation, but…what is the deal with the preaching lately?

It starts off like it’s going to be deliriously ambitious, with penguins singing to the gods, and animation that is stunning.  Some of the visuals in the movie are some of the best I have ever seen; they are that striking.  But a movie must have a great story, and this one involves Mumble (Elijah Wood), a penguin who can’t fit in to the choral clique in which he was born because he has no singing voice whatsoever.  But he can dance like crazy, though, which is frowned upon by his father Memphis (Hugh Jackman), who claims it’s “just not penguin.”  Mom Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman), however, thinks being different is good, and so does his love interest Gloria (Brittany Murphy).

Mumble ends up befriending a group of Hispanic-sounding penguins who call themselves “The Amigos” (one voiced by Robin Williams, who plays two other characters including a “wise” penguin named Lovelace).  These penguins and their group dance and have different customs.  With their help, the dance craze and the singing start to merge, much to the chagrin of the elder penguins (one voiced by Hugo Weaving), who feel singing is sacred and has made it religion.  They blame the scarcity of fish on the dancing.  Mumble has to go out and prove them (and their silly beliefs) wrong, discovering the most sinister evil of them all…man.

Yep, man.  While one scene proves to be very creepy as Mumble finds himself in new surroundings, and it’s pretty cool, this movie has a lot of beating on your head to do.  I kept recalling Michael Jackson’s song “Man in the Mirror.”  At one point I thought of Jim Carrey in Liar, Liar when a tape in court involving his client having sex with another man elicits an “OH COME ON!!!”

I know that the commercial value of the movie would have likely died, but if this could have been all musical and dancing, with the animation, all soaring to the heavens, it would have been a transforming experience, because the beginning of this movie is breathtaking.  Instead, we have the tried-and-true formula of “being different is cool” and “we can change the world if we want to” and you know…same old stuff.  A big hit in the making, for sure, but could have been a lot better story-wise.

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