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Happy Feet’ can’t quite blend cute critters, issues

Analise Lipari | Tuesday, December 5, 2006

Tap-dancing penguins? Who on earth would watch tap-dancing penguins for 90 minutes?

Before “Happy Feet,” such a question could be asked with a legitimate level of incredulity. After “Happy Feet,” however, such a question seems unnecessary.

Having remained the top grossing film at the box office since its release, it’s safe to say that “Happy Feet” has at least found financial success with its blend of “be yourself” beliefs and environmental advocacy.

The issue with the film lies in that blending – something that, unfortunately, the film does not do as well as it should have. “Happy Feet” is essentially two films – the first being a positive-reinforcement message of self-acceptance and the latter being a cautionary tale of human errors, especially the expenses paid by the rapidly shrinking ice caps.

“Happy Feet” has been solely (and rather effectively) advertised as a children’s film about an adorable penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood). Mumble’s society of Emperor penguins (last made famous on the big screen in the wildly successful 2005 documentary “March of the Penguins”) finds their mates through their heart songs, meaning the vocalized essence of their penguin souls. Their lifelong partners are those whose heart songs mesh perfectly with their own. What makes Mumble unique, however, is his “heart song” – Mumble cannot sing. Instead, Mumble tap dances.

The overall message of the first half deals with Mumble’s differences, as seen by his surrounding community and our ability to accept the differences of those around us – not an uncommon moral in modern children’s films.

The cuteness factor of “Happy Feet” is very high, and, especially during the first half, is welcome and joyous. Mumble’s parents, Memphis and Norma Jean (voiced by Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, respectively), are funny and good-natured, despite being in conflict regarding their social outcast of a son. The moments during Mumble’s childhood are by far the cutest and most amusing – the widely circulated trailer featuring Seymour, another baby penguin who raps his heart song, can attest to that.

Where the film stumbles is in its second half, when Mumble leaves his group of Emperor penguins and embarks on a journey – with a Robin Williams-led squad of Adelie penguins in tow – to investigate the existence of “aliens” in their home. As you might guess, these aliens are human beings – humans whose presence is given a subtly negative connotation from the film’s opening.

“Happy Feet” is darker, more complex and more socially conscious from the time that Mumble leaves his home onward. The film reaches emotional depths during this portion that the quickly resolved conclusion is not entirely able to counter. Seeing Mumble in a zombie-like state of depression while captured in an aquarium is effective, certainly, if the purpose of the film is to increase its audience’s awareness of ongoing struggles in the environment. For what has been publicized widely as a children’s film about accepting differences, it is, to say the least, surprising.

The strange blending of live-action (all humans in the movie are filmed and digitally inserted into the animated whole) and computer animation is somewhat distracting, especially during the film’s final moments. While in previous children’s films, such as 1996’s “Space Jam,” combining two media is obviously intended and effective, in the CGI world of “Happy Feet,” it just seems odd.

Ultimately, where the film suffers is in its attempt to widen the normal thematic scope of a holiday children’s movie. The message of preservation and protection is a timely one – however, for “Happy Feet,” it proves to be too much for the film to handle.