Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Elijah Wood, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving
Warren Coleman, Judy Morris, John Collee
|Grade: A to A-
|Grade: B+ to B
|Grade: B- to C+
|Grade: C to C-
|With its toe-tapping, energized and sweet trailers, "Happy Feet" quickly became my most highly anticipated film of the 2006 holiday season.
|During a season in which I should be centered squarely on Oscar potentials and critical darlings, I found myself completely swept up in "Happy Feet" mania. Sure, I'll admit it.
The title made me think of that old "Happy Feet" routine from Steve Martin who, by the way, would have been a delightful addition to an already delightful cast. Of course, I also giggled with delight at the thought of a footless man reviewing "Happy Feet."
I get into that sort of dark humor, after all.
That sort of giddiness mixed with the darkness of humanity is, actually, "Happy Feet" in a nutshell (or should I say igloo?). "Happy Feet" is part "Moulin Rouge," part "An Inconvenient Truth" and part "The Incredibles."
The end result is that "Happy Feet" is a solidly entertaining visual masterpiece held back from greatness only by a script that never quite lives up to the gold standard established by the rest of the film.
Co-writer and director George Miller, who gave us the "Mad Max" and "Babe" films, has included nearly all the elements required to create one of the greatest animated films of all time.
While greatness is never achieved, "Happy Feet" remains one of 2006's most entertaining animated films and, by far, the most beautifully photographed animated film in recent years.
Miller, never really one for subtlety, is a breath of fresh air for animated film. He's a risk-taking, genre bending and innovative director whose bold, brash creative genius is exciting to watch even when it's not particularly effective.
"Happy Feet," as I'm sure every adult and child knows by now thanks to a massive marketing campaign, is the story of "Mumbles" (voiced by E.G. Daily as a child, Elijah Wood as he matures). The film, which opens with a scene almost directly out of "March of the Penguins," introduces us to penguin seduction between Mumbles' parents, Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman), who, you guessed it, sound an awful lot like Elvis and Marilyn Monroe.
Remember? I said Miller isn't exactly subtle here...whether he's catering to the children OR the adults.
While it's easy to admire and appreciate Miller's attention to the needs of both adults and children, on more than one occasion I found myself more chuckling at the idea of little Johnny asking daddy on the way home "What's mating, daddy?" Miller, quite intentionally it seems, intermixes adult themes with child themes and often plays them off of each other.
Oh, wait. Back to the story. It's so easy to get distracted by my intellect.
"Mumbles" isn't normal, it seems. After Memphis has spent a fierce winter protecting the egg while Norma Jean goes off and works for the winter, Mumbles is born without the traditional emperor penguin "heart song." Instead, Mumbles has, well, "Happy Feet." He dances, while all the other penguins sing.
Even more impressively, he knows quite a few of today's contemporary hits! (Even more surprising considering Miller's almost sledgehammer approach to considering humanity to be "aliens").
As Mumbles grows up, goes to school and tries to win the love of Gloria (Brittany Murphy), he becomes more and more an outcast in his own society. Finally, Mumbles leaves his community of emperor penguins and, after two rather frightening attack sequences involving skuas and a seal, Mumbles finds himself befriended by a ragtag group of Adelie penguins, all of whom seem to speak with a Hispanic accent. Their leader, Ramon (Robin Williams), is typical Robin Williams...funny, flirty and, oh so, friendly! Yet, in this community Mumbles finds himself accepted, even celebrated, for the first time in his life.
Mumbles returns briefly to his community accompanied by his friends in an attempt to woo Gloria, however, he is spurned by the almost cultishly controlling elders (the "elder" is voiced by Hugo Weaving, a marvelous choice) of the community. When he is banished for good because he and his friends are blamed for the lessening fish population (they are displeasing to the great "Guin"), Mumbles sets out to find out the truth about what's happening to the fish!
It is from this point on that "Happy Feet" achieves both its visual greatness and its overall failure in achieving perfection as an animated film. When Mumbles and his friends meet Rockhopper guru Lovelace (also voiced by Robin Williams), the film sets off on a manic, hypnotic and mesmerizing adventure that contains the most beautiful images ever captured in an animated film. The technical wizardry in creating chase scenes involving Orcas is, for example, simply stunning enough to create a new sub-genre of animated films...the action film.
Shots of Antarctica, minimalist white mountains of ice against a barren sky, raging seas and, with stunning perfection, the overwhelming experience of a young penguin first encountering technology and humanity, are beautifully captured in camerawork that borders on epic filmmaking. Even when the dialogue is failing, the cinematography of "Happy Feet" is nothing short of awesome.
While the film takes a few moments to get its flippers wet early on, it is Miller's ending that is perhaps the most disconcerting. After nearly 90 minutes of adorable, energizing, mesmerizing and hypnotizing camera work and character, the film nearly, and I stress NEARLY, completely falls apart towards the end.
While virtually nothing in "Happy Feet" could be deemed subtle, the film's last 20-30 minutes border on pro-environment propaganda. Perhaps the film was reaching the last $1 million of its reported $100 million budget, but in the last 20-30 minutes it seems Miller races us through Mumbles' encounters with humanity, his temporary enslavement, his freedom and, finally, the peaceful co-existence of penguins and people...ALL IN THE LAST 20-30 MINUTES! Only the film's closing number, which is as entertaining as it is senseless, rescues the film from landing with a globally warming Antarctic crash.
The film's music, ranging from the seduction of Prince's "Kiss" to "Boogie Wonderland" and Queen's "Somebody to Love," are stellar in their presentation, however, they are equally as likely to have you scratching your head going "How does that possibly fit here?" While it is doubtful that most small children will understand the films double entendres, in dialogue and song, there were several moments that had me thinking "That's not really appropriate for a film squarely targeting small children."
The cast is uniformly strong, most notably Daily, Wood, Murphy and Williams. Kidman and Jackman work well together, but aren't given as much to do, while Weaving primarily offers a variation on his "Matrix" and "V for Vendetta" personas.
As previously stated, "Happy Feet" does include 2-3 attack scenes that may frighten small children, however, each scene ends positively and moves quickly to a more delightful, upbeat scene.
While "Happy Feet" may not be the critical masterpiece I had hoped for, it is an amazing, entertaining and intelligent animated film quite suitable for viewing by smaller children, older children and adults alike. While not even the smallest child could miss the film's pro-environment stance, much of the film's pro-diversity, anti-government/religion stance is likely to fall on deaf ears.
"Happy Feet," despite the tragic flaws within its script, is destined to be the first big hit of the 2006 holiday season. It's true, Steve Martin said it best, "I'm getting Happy Feet!"
|© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic