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Movie Review ****: Dancing Penguin Saves the World

...Happy Feet... Brings Warmth From the Coldest Reaches of the Globe

By Tyson C. McNulty

“Happy Feet”

Starring: Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman

Directed by George Miller

Written by Warren Coleman, John Collee, George Miller, and Judy Morris

Rated PG

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Up to this point, the producers of “Happy Feet” have been selling the film as a children’s movie that has the occasional joke or two that will make parents laugh but still go over kids’ heads. This is, in general, an accurate portrayal. The content is certainly suitable for the PG crowd, and the overall “save the environment” message is duly predictable. However, this advertising strategy misses out on a very important quality of Happy Feet that could have drawn in another substantial demographic: “Happy Feet” kicks ass. Let me tell you why.

The very idea of this movie is unparalleled in brilliance. Essentially, “Happy Feet” is a cleverly disguised excuse to create a jukebox musical involving antarctic wildlife. This film lets you forget your worries and cares for two hours while you follow the life of a daring, lovable, tone-deaf, tap-dancing emperor penguin. Since the penguin society is based around music, his peers ridicule him from an early age. After being exiled for his differences, he journeys around the world and eventually reunites with his brethren towards a greater purpose. Oh yeah, and he single-handedly saves the Antarctic ecosystem from impending doom by convincing humanity to abandon the worldwide fishing enterprise at all latitudes below Tierra del Fuego. How? The power of dance. Imbued from birth. See this movie.

The animation is beyond spectacular. The penguins are lifelike, not distractingly anthropomorphic, and undeniably cute. The scenery runs the gamut from beautiful to breathtaking. Live-action shots transition seamlessly to and from the animated sequences. I personally appreciated how the artists employ a dramatic change in scale when the penguins come into proximity with man-made machinery or natural cliff faces. The effect is like something out of anime or perhaps a cutscene from a video game, which is fitting, since “Happy Feet” is the first full-length computer-animated movie from Animal Logic, the studio responsible for many of the special effects in “The Matrix” and “Hero.”

“Happy Feet” carries a star-studded cast to boot. Elijah Wood and Brittany Murphy voice major characters. Even Fat Joe makes an appearance. Being an Australia-based company, Animal Logic recruited some locals as well. Australian celebrities include Hugo Weaving, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman (“Happy Feet” and “Moulin Rouge!” grant her near-monopoly status over jukebox musical films), and even the late great Steve Irwin. Robin Williams is the icing on the cake, voicing the two funniest characters in the movie himself.

Most of the actors even sang their own musical numbers, true to the jukebox musical style. Much of the plot centered around the penguins’ realization of their own “heart song,” which would manifest itself as anything from “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash to “Boogie Wonderland” by Earth, Wind, and Fire to “Shake your Bon-Bon” by Ricky Martin. During the mating season in the film, these heart songs would coalesce into an all-out pop medley.

The writers managed to sneak in numerous science-fiction undertones. Humans are frequently referred to as “mystic beings” or aliens, and contact with humans is often compared to abduction. When at one point the protagonist wakes up to find himself in a zoo, the scene is reminiscent of “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and another penguin in his habitat even provides a HAL 9000 impression. When machinery looms near, it evokes the motif of a spacecraft approaching through the fog. To top it all off, the beginning and end credits cycle through a set of still frames in space that includes a mock-up of the Horsehead Nebula but with the familiar shape replaced with the silhouette of a penguin.

Sci-fi rules. Pop covers rule. Robin Williams rules. Anime rules. Antarctica rules. “Happy Feet” owns.