With Borat, Bond and various upcoming Oscar fodder hogging the headlines, you might not have heard much about the li'l penguin that could (dance). Which plays right into Happy Feet's heartwarming-but-not-sappy theme. At long last, a great animated movie--for everyone!
In the beginning of Happy Feet, you might think a handful of moviegoers forgot to silence their cell phones; it's just the emperor penguins, singin' their beaks off to one of any number of songs popular circa 2003. In Antarctica, that's how they stick together--it's how they harmonize, so to speak. But with the birth of one penguin, Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), the whole colony is shaken up. Mumble has the voice of a puberty-stricken boy and is unable to keep a tune, but he can dance like the dickens! His mother, Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman), thinks it's a cute habit, but his father (voiced by Hugh Jackman) and the rest of the tight-knit community ostracize him. After toiling around a while with his new buddies (of which two are voiced by Robin Williams), some of whom are "Latino penguins," Mumble realizes his only chance at redemption is to find the source of the penguins' current fish famine--and he'll stop at nothing, not even "aliens.''
Robin Williams is quite the odd bird himself. Nowadays--movie-wise, at least--he's better heard and not seen (i.e. voice-over roles like this one), whereas his mile-a-minute physicality was once a necessary evil to get the full 3-D effect of his personality. His animated self obviously less in-your-face, Williams' dialogue does all the work in Feet and gives a performance that matches his beloved Aladdin Genie. Frodo alert: Wood, also starring in this weekend's Bobby, hits all the, er, wrong notes to turn in a solid performance as the movie's lead, Mumble. Since he sounds (and looks) much younger to most people than his actual age (25), it's another in his long line of impeccable role choices. As the unattainable object of Mumble's affection, Brittany Murphy stars as Gloria, a character that if nothing else allows the actress to display her singing talents as a preview of her reported upcoming album. (Yes, seriously.) The biggest names, Kidman and Jackman, with small parts, don't offer much besides superficial mainstream appeal, but bit parts from Hugo Weaving, Anthony LaPaglia and the late Steve Irwin round out the formidable cast with some zing.
Penguins have long been ripe for the animating, what with their waddling, clumsiness and stuffed-animal cuteness. March of the Penguins outed them as lovable, misunderstood Antarctic creatures, Madagascar turned them into 'toon comedians and now Feet director and co-writer George Miller (Mad Max) gives them the full treatment by animating and literally humanizing them. Miller's labor of love, which he'd deliberated over for some time, encompasses all the kiddie messages we've come to expect while managing to toss in the rare animation curveball: ecological themes. Miller is clearly an animal lover--he also wrote and produced Babe--a passion he ties into the film without forcing. But the animation, nonstop musical numbers and technical aspect of the film will truly and pleasantly surprise you. In fact, a few scenes in particular involving humans juxtaposed with animated penguins make for memorable images--and messages. He and his team of co-writers, Warren Coleman, John Collee and Judy Morris, also formulate typically quicker-witted dialogue for the primarily Aussie cast, but it's the overall heartwarming tale and execution thereof that'll have you smiling all movie long.
Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.