November 18, 2006

MOVIES: Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006)

Gorgeous animation, but a storytelling muddle that can't make up its mind whether it wants to entertain or preach.

Our characters are emperor penguins -- the same penguins featured in March of the Penguins -- and the conceit is that every penguin has a "heart song," and that penguins find their mates by singing at one another until they find the partner whose heart song moves them. Or is compatible with theirs. Or something. The muddle sets in early here, but however it works, every penguin has a heart song, except for poor little Mumble who can't sing at all; instead, Mumble expresses himself by tap dancing.

A digression: If you wanted to make a movie about a misunderstood tap-dancing animal, why on earth would you choose penguins? They've got stumpy little legs that can barely waddle, much less dance, and whether you're talking traction or acoustics, snow and ice are not surfaces made for tap.

But anyway, Mumble dances (he is voiced by Elijah Wood, bland as ever; at least here we don't have to look at his freakish Margaret Keane eyes), and without a heart song of his own, he may never win the love of the fair Gloria (Brittany Murphy).

Another digression: It is never bluntly stated, but it is strongly implied, that the reason for Mumble's dancing/non-singing is that his father dropped his egg in the cold before it hatched. Individuality, in other words, is presented as a birth defect.

Mumble's dancing freaks out the penguins, who ostracize him in distinctly religious terms, with Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving) making long, pompous speeches about repentance and how Mumble's freakishness has displeased the gods. That displeasure has expressed itself in the form of a fish shortage, and all of a sudden, we're into the preachy environmental message half of the movie, as we learn that Evil Mankind -- who else? -- is responsible for the fish shortage. The last act of the movie is just plain weird and the plot nearly incomprehensible (how exactly does Mumble get back to the emperor colony the last time?).

The voice casting isn't terribly good here. In addition to the dullness of Wood, we've got Robin Williams, over the top as usual in two roles, both of them bordering on offensive ethnic stereotypes; Ramon is a Latino penguin (don't ask) and Lovelace is a Barry White-lite penguin guru. Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman play Mumble's parents; Jackman's Memphis is an Elvis-type (his heart song is "Heartbreak Hotel"), and he doesn't come close to pulling off the southern accent.

On the plus side, Brittany Murphy's love interest is charming, and she pulls off a credible version of Queen's "Somebody to Love" in one of the movie's loveliest scenes, with a magnificent animated Aurora Borealis serving as the laser show. And in general, the movie looks marvelous. There's a thrilling sequence with Mumble fleeing from a menacing seal, and some of the musical numbers are very cleverly done.

But the story is such a mess, and the concept of tap-dancing penguins is so inherently flawed, that it's not worth sitting through it in search of those few nice moments.

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