When it comes to moviedom, penguins are as close as it gets to a sure thing, hit-wise. This is something irresistible about this unlikely bird and the way it’s so easy to anthropomorphize its sturdy waddle and formal wear. To his credit, George Miller, director, co-author, and conceiver of the story as a whole, doesn’t rely solely on that, nor on vast swaths of penguins doing the wave across a desolate tundra. No, he has done more than concoct a cutesy tale of an emperor penguin trying to find love while being himself in an otherwise homogenous society. He has sent this plucky little fellow, Mumble, on an epic journey. By the end, you will not only believe that a penguin can dance, but that he can also save the world.
The trouble begins when Elvis-ized Memphis (Hugh Jackman) is incubating the egg that will become Mumble. Instead of contemplating The Great Guin while waiting out the long winter as the elders command, he’s dreaming of Norma Jean (silvery voiced Nicole Kidman) and the heart-song they shared that led to the egg. She’s off fishing during the coldest darkest part of egg time, leaving Memphis to balance said egg on his feet, the way a good penguin dad should. Thus distracted, the egg slips into the snow and when it hatches, later than all the others in the colony, the little guy pops out feet-first and dancing, much to the consternation of dad, who tells him it’s just not penguin, and everyone else. Worse, when the time comes for Mumble to find his heartsong, the one that will find him his true love, what comes out is a squawk that drives his teacher to conniptions, and the rest of the colony to laughter and worse. Kept on the fringes of emperor penguin society, never quite getting over his molting phase, the final blow comes when just as he’s starting to win the colony over to his dancing form of wooing courtesy of Gloria (Brittany Murphy) who joins in the boogie, the chief elder (Hugo Weaving), brands him a heretic and blames him for the decline in the local fish population. Mumble (earnestly voiced as an adolescent by Elijah Wood) leaves, but only to prove to the elders and everyone else that the mysterious aliens he’s been hearing about from hungry skuas and the rockhopper guru, Lovelace (Robin Williams as Barry White), are to blame. His time is short. The colony’s position is precarious, and the plastic six-pack rings around Lovelace’s neck, which he tells everyone is a mark of favor from the aliens, is turning into a noose. He’s joined by a gaggle of deliciously salsa-fied Adelies, led by Ramon (Robin Williams in a manic Latin mood), who give a running commentary on the action while providing some comic relief.
The animation here is dazzling, there is just no other word for it. Top of the list is the motion-capture that lets Mumble dance like Savion Glover, whose motion was the one captured. From the translucence of blue ice, to the six million feathers on each penguin, to the penguins flying underwater in fanciful formations leaving streams of bubbles in their wakes, to the unbelievably expressive eyes each of the animated characters has. That last is so good that it’s not a leap to imagine actors and directors pondering the same CGI applications on live-action performers. There is the same depth and complexity as the story itself, which owes much to the Brothers Grimm school of fairy tales, as in good and evil served up without a sugar coating and with no guarantee of a happy ending. The evil in this case manifests as eco-exploitation rather than traditional magic. There is magic in HAPPY FEET and it comes from that animation, as well as the deft blending of fun and looming, constant danger. The leopard seal, driven like all the other animals by a dearth of food, that attacks Mumble has a mouthful of teeth to rival that if any great white shark. It all works, though, because the characters are as fully realized as their feathers, and on both scores, given distinct personalities. Norma Jean has an almost heart-shaped spot over her real heart. Mumble has the shadow of a bow tie. The voice work is superb in even the smallest of roles, including the late Steve Irwin as a dubious elephant seal. They are performances in every sense of the word.
Aside from eco-messages and the strictures of orthodoxy of all kinds, there is a subtle comment on the way class structures tend to work, the first world and the way it does, and sometimes doesn’t, think of those on the bottom, literally and figuratively. In keeping with that, HAPPY FEET begins and ends with a shot of the galaxy. It’s a tidy way of bookending a tale that has at its core a message that we are all in this together.