Happy Feet (2006) – on rental. There were two Penguin-esque animated films released within 9 months of each other just 3 years ago: one was Happy Feet, the other Surf’s Up – and that’s not counting still Madagascar which had a bunch of four militant penguins in a big supporting role. Though visually the two films look very different, thematically they’re really quite similar: both films are about odd balls fitting in.
The story starts with a love match between Norma Jean (voiced by a raspy-sounding Nicole Kidman) and Memphis (Hugh Jackman with an Southern drawl), two penguins in a colony of Emperor penguins. When mama Jean leaves the colony with the other females to fish, daddy Memphis stays behind to guard their growing egg. In a moment of carelessness as a result of his love for singing, Memphis drops the egg in a freezing winter blizzard. When the egg hatches, Mumble (Elijah Woods) pops, and it’s discovered that the new chick can’t sing – unlike all the other penguins. Instead, Mumble dances.
Happy Feet is a bizarre film. The visuals are stylized after realism: there are spots in which the creatures and critters are so beautifully rendered and animated you’d be wondering if you’re watching live footage instead. And while I’m not a penguin expert, the film introduces several elements by way of its narrative and visuals that seem accurate to the the real living conditions and behaviors of penguins. Like the kind of predators they face, or how they court, or family and societal responsibilities within the larger colony. And most significantly, the film has a lot of singing and dancing, and with the swooping in camera-work Happy Feet looks a lot like a Bollywood film.
The voice-work is also a highpoint in the film. Apart from Kidman, and Jackman, almost unrecognizable are veteran actors Hugo Weaving who does a Scottish-sounding change-resistant Penguin Elder, and Robin Williams who does two roles: a Latino fast-talking Adelie penguin, and a penguin Cult Leader. And talking about Adelie penguins, there’s a bunch of Adelie ‘amigo’ penguins in the film, and their bachelor and jock jokes are crazily hilarious. The cast of well-known actors in the talent group apparently did their own singing too.
Unfortunately, Happy Feet has huge problems. The film is clearly pro-liberal which is fine by me but also unnecessarily littered with anti-Christian allegories and racial stereotypes. Even those I can live with, but from online discussions Happy Feet has offended a lot of people with its in-your-face preaching.
The film instead for me gets hit by a double failure-whammy elsewhere. Firstly: the realistic visuals work… until human beings get introduced into the story. Curiously, human beings were filmed against obviously computer-generated backgrounds and then inserted into the film. This visual design decision goes well-against the norm for modern animated films established since Who Framed Roger Rabbit which did the reverse, but it didn’t work for me: the computer-generated visuals and live footage just doesn’t blend well in Happy Feet.
More seriously however is that the story is let down by both a rushed and absurd ending. Happy Feet runs for 108 minutes – long compared to the typical run length of 90 minutes for an animated film. There’s enough material for the first 90 minutes so that the story moves along steadily: but the last 15 minutes tries to resolve a key predicament that would normally have taken half the running length of any other animated film to do so.
What we end up with is a resolution that takes a huge leap from believability to disbelief and skipping a lot of steps in between – which involves a single odd ball penguin’s ability to somehow transpose dancing into a sophisticated message of “We are starving because you are overfishing” and thus influence what seems like the United Nations. Of human beings…!
So, in the world of Happy Feet, penguins dance because they are starving, and the humans somehow get that. Just Wow. The transition from realism to the fantastic and how the story comes to a screeching halt in the last 15 minutes is just shocking.
I’m not sure what happened, but I’m guessing that the story writers had written themselves into the corner that they didn’t have enough film time to develop a more natural conclusion to the setup. The ending spoils what is otherwise a terrifically fun and entertaining ride.
In sum: great for the first 90 minutes or so, utterly disappointing in the last 10 – and maybe enough to leave you with a sour taste, or even offended depending on your religious sentiments.