HAPPY FEET is being advertised as a quasi-Disneyesque animated
movie about the adorable flightless birds who waddled home with an
Academy Award for Best Documentary of 2005. While it is true that some
of those qualities are in force, the film also has a darker undertone
as befitting of the man who directed the apocalyptic MAD MAX.
To be quite honest, part of my disenchantment with this movie
stems from the viewing experience. I've become accustomed to the
anti-piracy security and the hoops one has to go through to get into
a screening (it's part of the job), but there remains these inane
gradations of "notoriety" that determine where one sits in the theater.
Usually, the studio p.r. flacks will have roped off areas for the "name"
critics. (Getting a seat in that area is akin to being allowed into a
top nightclub -- only you really cannot bribe the young men and women
who guard the seats in the way you might slip a $50 to a doorman.)
I guess I was also of suspicion because I was one of the few people
who arrived for the screening without a small child in tow. Well, the
kids I know have grown up and I'm not about to start hanging out
around schools or playgrounds -- we know where that may lead. (See
SAY UNCLE, if you have any questions.) Since I was denied a seat in
the non-roped off area at the back of the theater (most of which, I
noted were empty as the lights dimmed), I ended up near the front
of the theater. While waiting what seemed an eternity, I made a
very dumb mistake. I took out my cellphone to glance at the time
and had three guards descend on me like a swat team, barking how
I had to turn the phone off during the movie. Mind you, there were
at least 15 minutes more before the picture was to start. Of course,
not 30 seconds later, a man three rows in front of me started sending
text messages and a woman two rows in front of me was speaking
loudly on her cell to her husband giving him the kids' concession stand
orders and alerting him to her whereabouts in the theater. They were
allowed to do so with no intervention. So by the time the movie did
start, I was not a happy camper.
If HAPPY FEET had been a more enjoyable movie experience,
I might have been able to put aside all my frustrations. (I had had
a similarly horrible waiting experience for last year's screening of
RENT, which I was all set to hate and which I ended up liking a lot
more than most other reviewers.) One of the problems I had with this
movie was that I felt I had already seen the first section. While it
is true that HAPPY FEET was in production for years before
THE MARCH OF THE PENGUINS, it has the distinction of following
it into theaters. (Not unlike the situation with CAPOTE and this year's
INFAMOUS; it's a question of whoever gets there first seems to win.)
From what I've read, PENGUINS mirrored HAPPY FEET in its original
version that played at Sundance: there were voiceovers to create
characters and even a love story. All of that was jettisoned for a more
straightforward approach which proved more palatable to American
Yes in this film the mating ritual has an added layer --
each penguin couple has an individual "heartsong" -- in the case of
Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and Memphis (Hugh Jackman), it's Prince's
"Kiss," albeit with altered lyrics. They go through the routine, she
lays the egg and passes it the dad while she heads off to fish.
There's a mishap (that if you saw the documentary you know would
probably result in something more dramatic than what occurs in this
film), but since it is aimed in part at young children, the egg survives.
But it hatches slower than the others and what emerges isn't quite
like the others. Mumble (EG Dailey as a child; Elijah Wood as the
grown-up) cannot sing -- but he can dance! (Thanks to Savion Glover
and the motion capture process.)
Of course, Mumble is an embarrassment to his father, who
points out that dancing "just ain't penguin," while his mother is more
accepting. The grown version of Mumble also looks different from the
rest of the flock -- he's retained his grey coat and has Wood's bright
blue eyes while the others are brown-eyed. Now lest you think that this
is going to devolve into a Mumble is different, therefore he must be
gay thing -- well, nope. Someone might be able to read that into
the film, but he is given a soul mate -- Gloria (Brittany Murphy) who
can belt out a tune better than the others.
There are also religious overtones that can be read into the
story as well. Mumble is "different" and cast out of the flock where
he travels with a band of disciples (four Adelie penguins who
unaccountably speak with Spanish accents and are lead by Ramon,
voiced by Robin Williams), suffers for the breed, is captured and
imprisoned and returns at the end in triumph. Any allegorical parallels
with certain religions is I'm sure clearly coincidental.
While banished from the tribe because he can dance but not
sing, Mumble goes on a journey to discover why the fish are
disappearing at an alarming rate. Along the way, he approaches
a self-appointed guru named Lovelace, a Rockhopper penguin also
voiced by Robin Williams, this time attempting to sound like a black
man. I know this is a movie and all, but since Rockhoppers are
native to Argentina, Lovelace might have had the Spanish accent, but
what do I know? I guess all the Black and Hispanic actors in the
industry must have been busy on other projects which is why Williams
does double duty.
Miller worked on the screenplay with three other writers, so
that may account for the schizophrenic feel to the movie which
has several apparent endings. It turns out that HAPPY FEET also is
meant to have a message about humans relating to the planet.
We're polluting the oceans, destroying the food chain by overfishing
and causing all sorts of other chaos through over development. Again,
Al Gore and AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH got there first. (This film
also bears more than a passing resemblance to the festival screened
THE JOURNALS OF KNUD RASMUSSEN, which explored the effects of
famine and the encroachment of the white man.)
There are several sequences, however well animated, that
will terrify small children, including one involving a menacing sea lion
that one almost wishes someone would club to death, and the other
involving a shark attack. Those scenes disturbed several young boys
and girls who were sitting around me.
As I've mentioned, the computer animation is extremely well
done and very detailed. I have to wonder about the idea of interpolating
existing songs into the score and why new ones weren't written (beyond
the pretty but forgettable one that Prince wrote and performs over the
closing credits). It's also no coincidence that Mumble's parents are
named Norma Jean (that is, Marilyn Monroe, with Kidman approximating
her kittenish purr) and Memphis (Elvis Presley, whom Hugh Jackman
doesn't quite manage to invoke despite trying with a rendition of
a few bars from "Heartbreak Hotel.") The best voicing of the bunch
belongs to Elijah Wood and Brittany Murphy, who gets to demonstrate
her terrific singing voice.
I had wanted to like HAPPY FEET more -- I went in expecting
a more lighthearted piece. While Miller is to be commended for
adding layers to the story, I do feel it went on way too long and that
its points were hammered home. And I'm well aware I will be in the
minority on this matter. To me, the movie just didn't coalesce and
proved to be disappointing at best.
MPAA Rating: PG for some mild peril and rude humor
Running time: 87 mins.
Viewed at the AMC 34th Street Theater
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.