Since the release of March of the Penguins last year, tuxedoed flightless waterfowl have become the newest darlings of the animal kingdom. What is not to like? They are cute, harmless (except perhaps to fish), faithful to their mates (well, for one season anyway) and utterly inoffensive. They also have the virtue of being exotic. Most of us are unlikely to see a penguin unless we visit a zoo.
I imagine our current fascination with penguins was much of the impetus behind the new animated movie
Whereas real penguins can be challenging to anthropomorphosize, animated penguins suffer fewer of these constraints. Consequently, it is possible to conjure up a blue-eyed penguin named Mumble (voiced by the obscenely blue-eyed Elijah Wood) without much of a thought. The blue eyes definitely help make Mumble easy to spot in the many penguin throngs. The most vexing challenge for these animators was not generating the spectacular CGI, but trying to make these penguins look different. For the most part, they do not succeed: they all look like each other, which at least is true to nature. Therefore, you must listen carefully to the voices if you want to tell the characters apart.
Mind you, this animated Antarctica is gorgeous and portrayed so stunningly that it probably beats the real thing. It doubtless took an enormous amount of computer power to generate all the pixels for this movie. Indeed, there are times when it is hard to tell whether the movie is animated or not. Because it is computer generated, it is possible to do things that go beyond the limits of mere documentaries like March of the Penguins. For example, there are a plethora of scenes where penguins are sliding down mountains and you get to slide along next to them. A few scenes are so convincing I had vertigo right in the theater.
Mumble is an Emperor penguin with a problem. He cannot sing. This was largely true of Fred Astaire too, who was not much of a crooner. Fortunately, like Fred, this penguin can dance. Both are enough to get him kicked off the ice floe; penguins may be cute to look at but they are portrayed as Republican in nature and do not tolerate nonconformance very well. Fortunately, Mumble quickly runs into a small group of wild and crazy free spirited Adelie penguins who think his goofy tap dancing is too cool for words. Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving and Nichole Kidman are among the voice actors who help breathe life into this movie.
The movie itself careens between a serious undertone, rampant goofiness, near heart stopping action and Lassie-like saccharineness. Pop dance tunes pervade it and Mumble is the first of many penguins who eventually move to their beats. It generally succeeds in amusing the kids and holding the attention of the adults. For all its visual richness and smooth, computer generated animation it remains essentially a pre-holiday season popcorn movie, buttered lightly for your amusement. Like similar forgettable movies such as Van Helsing, this one, although it has moments when it is truly touching, will quickly recede from your mind. To Hollywood accountants all that matters is that it succeeds in separating you from your wallet. Fortunately, it does so without leaving you feeling that you wasted your money. If my wife was not such a penguin fanatic and I was not such a loyal husband, I would have snuck into the adjacent theater and watched the latest Bond movie instead.
Happy Feet will exceed your expectations, as long as they are modest, but it will not do so by much. This solid B+ of a movie gets 3.1 on my 4.0 scale.