Happy Feet

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 11/30/06 14:14:59

"Cartoon penguins love Grandmaster Flash. Whatever."
2 stars (Pretty Crappy)

Well, this is a disappointing surprise: legendary filmmaker George Miller has managed to take the idea of an all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing adventure starring penguins, those most lovable of all flightless birds, and make it boring. And annoying. And too long. But mostly boring.

The premise behind “Happy Feet” (which, as almost all CGI cartoons now do, looks phenomenal, from the soft feathers on the baby penguins to the glow of the aurora australis) is that all penguins have within them their own song, a song that comes from the heart; these songs are catchy pop tunes of the 1970s through today, with the rare 50s and 60s oldies thrown in for good measure. (Penguins, whose hearts are driven by corporate concerns, apparently cannot be concerned with anything older and therefore less marketable.) It’s a case of royalty checks all around, as the penguins of Antarctica sing these tunes at full volume while looking for a mate - two songs will fit perfectly together, in a penguin version of those mash-ups the kids like to talk about so much these days, and the best mash-up means a mate for life. This means we get long takes of penguins running around singing “Boogie Wonderland” or “Tell Me Something Good” or (no kidding) “Let’s Talk About Sex.” One baby penguin breaks out with the opening lines of Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message,” because baby penguins rapping about the horrors of urban blight is adorable.

We also get an Elvis-like papa bird named Memphis (drawled by Hugh Jackman, who is required by movie law to be in everything these days) crooning “Heartbreak Hotel” while mama bird Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) - yes, that Norma Jean - cranks out an asthmatic take on Prince’s “Kiss.” Later, Brittany Murphy warbles a crass, pop-ified cover of Queen’s “Somebody To Love,” while a chorus of fellow birds do a Brittany/Christina/Jessica-esque pop-and-lock dance routine. It’s all little more than quickie pop culture references and bastardizations of the classics (and not-so-classics) all because somebody thought it’d sell more soundtrack CDs, which it probably will.

The plot kicks in when Memphis and Norma Jean have a kid, Mumble (Elijah Wood), who turns out to be one heck of a dancer but can’t carry a note no matter how hard he tries. Problem is, dancing “just isn’t penguin,” and the poor kid becomes an outcast. And so off he goes to meet Ramon (Robin Williams in the first of two ethnic stereotype-driven performances, this time as a party-loving Latino - the other is a sensuous soul brother, ugh) and his friends, who teach him Hakuna Matata, or whatever the equivalent is that helps the studio avoid a lawsuit from Disney. He returns to the flock a happier bird, only to get booted out once again, this time because the elders believe he’s the reason for the fish shortage that’s starving the continent. And so Mumble goes on a second mission, this time to find the “aliens” (as a Brooklyn-accented bird who was captured and tagged by them once calls them) who are taking all of the fish.

And so “Happy Feet” goes from cutesy tale of a tap-dancing penguin to a dark allegory on both religious extremism and environmental destruction. With this, director Miller and his staff of co-writers bite off far more than they can chew. The religious metaphors - Mumble is exiled for being different by a group of close-minded elders who fear change and blame all troubles on a god-like force being angered - is far too heavy-handed and clumsy to ever properly connect. More importantly, the filmmakers are unwilling to keep up with this idea, allowing it to disappear from the story whenever it’s inconvenient to the plot, forcing it back into the movie whenever the story needs a good kick forward. The point is appreciated but gets lost in a jumble of overcrowded storytelling.

Then comes the environmental rant, which is also quite welcome yet too awkwardly handled, with Miller eventually giving up on subtlety and opting instead to just start cramming it all down our throats. Human activity is slowly destroying other species - this is a problem worth mentioning. Yet the film’s attitudes get misplaced; by attempting to show how us people only respond to cute animals doing tricks, it resorts to wowing us with cute animals doing tricks. This is not the story of the butt-ugly elephant seal going hungry, or of the homely albatross dying out, but of the cuddly penguin. The film’s final act brings in humans (seen as live action, not animated, beings, a choice that winds up having a mildly creepy effect), and in slightly mocking the notion that we only want to rescue the cuter species, the movie forgets that we’ve spent two hours watching the cuter species. And then it yells at us.

What “Happy Feet” becomes, then, is a clutter. It wants to be a politically charged message movie, a toe-tapping musical, a goofy-accents comedy, a somber drama, and a pop culture reference-laden modern cartoon. None of it fits together and everything jumps from light tone to dark and back again with a complete lack of rhythm (pardon the pun), causing the whole thing to drag. With nothing of interest to keep our attention, our minds slowly drift to ponder why we’re bothering sticking with a movie that requires us to listen to multiple unbearable Robin Williams performances (he even manages to utterly destroy the Beatles’ classic “The End”) as well as multiple horrid renditions of our favorite pop tunes. Penguins may be cute, but “Happy Feet” is just a snooze.

Note: Not once in the tap dance-inspired movie “Happy Feet” does any penguin sing the tap dance-inspired song “Happy Feet.” Huh.

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