November 16, 2006

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Happy Feet (PG)
A Fred Astaire-like penguin learns that it's OK to dance when everyone else is singing in Happy Feet, a pretty cartoon about being different and the human destruction of fragile ecosystems.

Not only are we causing global warming, melting the glaciers and changing the seasons, for our animal friends living in and around the two poles, we are seriously messing with the social order and causing fundamentalist penguins to gain too much power. After all, it has always been a tenet of penguin life that only if all of the flightless birds work together will they survive the harsh conditions. For example, when the Elvis-loving Memphis (Hugh Jackman) meets the breathy-voiced Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and they give birth to an egg, it is Memphis' job to work with the other dad penguins to keep the egg protected and warm while the mom penguins stay together in their trek back to the sea for fish. Memphis does an OK job protecting the egg, though at one point, while daydreaming about Norma Jean, he drops the egg. Now, if you saw The March of the Penguins, you know that even a second out from under the protective, heated perch below a parent penguin's tummy means doom for an egg. But in the cartoon world, life isn't so harsh so while baby Mumbles (Elijah Wood) hatches late, he does in fact hatch. He hatches dancing, actually, which would seem strange regardless of species but is especially strange in the penguin world. For these emperor penguins, the entertainment of choice is singing all penguins have good voices and all penguins have a "heartsong" a song that will help them find their true penguin love.

As time goes on it's clear that Mumbles isn't going to be winning Penguin Idol any time soon (his croon is more of a croak) but the foot work is only improving. While most of the emperor penguins are unimpressed with all the shuffle-ball-changing except for a girl penguin named Gloria (Brittany Murphy) a pack of fun-loving shorter penguins led by the scrappy, Spanish-accented Ramon (Robin Williams) think Mumbles is "so accidentally cool." They groove with the winged outsider and even get the other emperors dancing until a hunchbacked gaggle of slightly Scottish-accented elders say that all this dancing mishegas is causing a turning away from penguin values and leading to the scarcity of fish. Hoping to end the famine, the elders send Mumbles away.

Mumbles doesn't believe this theory. He thinks the fish are disappearing because of something far more sinister than a little boogie. He and his short friends decide to go in search of some "aliens" that the Barry-White-voiced penguin Lovelace (Williams) told them about. Lovelace has a plastic six-pack holder stuck on his head and Mumbles is certain that it is the work of the same aliens that put a plastic ring on the leg of another bird he knows. Lovelace tells Mumbles where to find more strange items like these and they go off in hopes of finding the aliens and asking them not to take all the fish.

It's about here where your normal cartoon adventure story takes a weird turn. Mumbles decides to chase after some giant fishing boats and eventually ends up on a distant shore where he is put into a zoo. The final fourth of the movie covers this adventure and what happens subsequently when he tries to communicate with the humans. This part of the movie is a little dark and, at times, terrifying. In the kid-filled theater where I saw the movie, this is about when some of the younger kids seemed to get fidgety as well. It's hard to tell whether they didn't like it or didn't get it but either way, the movie starts to lose them.

Ultimately, I have to say, it all fits together but that final 20 minutes is so jarring that it leaves the movie with a somewhat uneven feel. Most of the preceding movie is relatively energetic and action-centered and, while it doesn't mix humor, adventure and character development as skillfully as the recent Flushed Away, the movie is above average when compared with most of the recent animated features. The movie prettily recreates the landscape of the South Pole using vivid blues and purples to convey the coldness of the place without making it too stark.

As with any case of using Williams in a sidekick role (he actually has three characters here), Williams and his colorful cohorts easily outshine Mumbles, as, frankly, does just about every other character. Wood is a delightfully weird, somewhat nuanced actor in live action but his voice is unremarkable. For him to stand up to the vocal somersaults of Williams would have been near impossible.

Happy Feet is generally a decent kids' movie that is probably best for kids (8 and over, maybe) who don't mind sticking it out through some of the odder moments. B-

Rated PG for some mild peril and rude humor. Directed by George Miller and written by Warren Coleman, John Collee, Judy Morris and Miller, Happy Feet is 98 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Brothers. It opens wide on Fri., Nov. 17.

Amy Diaz