Baby penguin Mumble (Wood) prefers dancing to singing, much to the disgust of the musical colony where he lives. As he struggles to find his place and win the heart of Gloria (Brittany Murphy), Mumble discovers something rotten at the heart of Antarctica...
Penguins have been poised on the brink of cinematic superstardom for the last few years, from their documentary blockbuster to the scene-stealing commando types of Madagascar. Happy Feet is, if you will, their Risky Business; a chance to prove that flightless Antarctic waddlers can headline a major motion picture event — and they just about pull it off.
The first 15 minutes of the film are basically a recap of March Of The Penguins, with Elvis and Prince filling in for Morgan Freeman. Here, Emperor penguins court each other by singing “heartsongs” to find a mate, and Kidman’s breathy, Monroe-esque Norma Jean is swept off her feet by Jackman’s down-home rendition of Heartbreak Hotel. It’s a slightly odd decision to imbue this least musical of birds with a penchant for bursting into song, but the results (thanks to the talented and incredibly starry voice cast) are undeniably foot-tapping. In due course arrives the almost unbearably cute Mumble, a penguin who just can’t sing — but has feet faster than Michael Flatley.
The film (directed by Mad Max’s George Miller) gives even more of a romantic gloss to the penguins’ struggles than did March, but doesn’t shy away from the harsh realities of Antarctic life. Once the chicks hatch, things briefly settle into the cosy musical extravaganza that the trailers promised — the birds singing their hearts out while Mumble shuffles his feet and Robin Williams pops up, Genie-like, to add some extra laughs. But just as you’ve mentally mapped out an oddball-wins-friends-as-community-realises-value-of-diversity finale, the film takes a twist into much darker territory.
Overfishing, the sanctity of Antarctica and the evils of zoos are all addressed as Mumble’s quest for acceptance takes him to dark and dangerous places. It’s such a strong message, in fact, that the film was branded an “animated Inconvenient Truth” by right-wing pundits, which is hopefully a recommendation. Certainly the hit that pork futures took after Babe is nothing compared to the fishfinger backlash that this invites. But the huge shift in tone is disconcerting, and for every child encouraged to campaign for a brighter future for penguins, there’ll be two who refuse ever to go back to the zoo.
Small kids will love the waddlesome dancing and colourful animation, but older viewers will likely be disturbed by the storys darker elements.