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What's the big deal?
Happy Feet is an animated musical family film released in 2006 and was directed, co-produced and co-written by George Miller. The film depicts a community of musical penguins who shun a dancing chick called Mumble, who then discovers another unusual talent thanks to friendships forged elsewhere on the ice of Antarctica. The film's ensemble cast include Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman and Hugo Weaving and features songs by Pink, Prince, The Beach Boys and several members of the cast. It was originally planned for a 3D release but this was cancelled due to a spiralling budget. The film was a critical and commercial success with global takings in excess of $384 million and was only the fourth non-Disney/Pixar film to win the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. It would followed by Happy Feet Two in 2011 which was sadly unable to repeat the success of the first film.
What's it about?
On the Antarctic ice-caps, emperor penguins compete with each other for a mate via the use of song. Norma Jean and Memphis, two such penguins who have found each other, welcome their new chick Mumble into the world when he hatches. However, Mumble has a terrible singing voice although he is secretly an expert tap dancer. As he grows up, Mumble becomes enchanted by Gloria who is arguably the best singer in the entire colony. Despite being mocked by his peers for his lack of singing ability, he befriends a group of Adelie penguins called 'The Amigos' and their leader, Ramon.
After discovering a human excavator following an avalanche, Mumble and the Amigos realise that their community may be in danger from 'aliens' and attempt to warn their elders but their warnings fall on deaf ears. Instead, Mumble's movements are blamed as the cause for a decline in the numbers of fish in the area which directly threaten all life. What can Mumble possibly do to convince them of the truth and win the heart of fair Gloria, in spite of his tone-deaf vocals?
What's to like?
Happy Feet is that rare example of a feel-good film that actually makes good on that promise. For younger viewers, the film offers a delightful spectacle with hundreds of penguins beautifully animated all singing and dancing in unison like some ice-themed Broadway production. Crucially, they are all songs that kids should either know or recognise so the chances are goof that they will even join in - I know I did and I was approaching my thirties when I first watched this! Away from the various song-and-dance routines, there is still plenty of mad-cap action and the sort of chaos one expects from a Robin Williams voice appearance. In fact, the man seems to voice a large number of the cast and is wonderfully funny. His performance underlines what a talent the man was and how sorely missed he is.
In fact, the film's cast is pretty much spot on. Wood is adorable as the ever-so-fluffy Mumble while Brittany Murphy delivers a powerhouse performance (singing and acting) as Gloria - again, reminding us all of what an underrated talent she was. And while the themes of environmentalism and climate change may rankle with some viewers (admittedly, narrow-minded viewers with red caps and a fetish for guns), it's an important message that comes across easily and doesn't feel forced down our throats. In some respects, it's every bit as good and socially responsible as one of my favourite films of all time - WALL-E - in that its points are clear, intelligently presented and still beautifully animated. If I'm truly honest with myself, it's even more fun at times and it genuinely pains me to admit that!
- The film is dedicated to Steve Irwin, the iconic wildlife host who tragically lost his life during the film's post-production and who also provided the voice for one of the elephant seals. He also voiced an albatross Mumble encounters in scenes that were originally cut but after Irwin's passing, the producers completed the scenes and reinserted them into the film.
- Mumble's appearance is designed to resemble the look of Fred Astaire. His feather coating is meant to look like a tuxedo complete with a black bow tie under his chin while the three black spots near his feet are designed to replicate the look of Astaire's famous spats.
- When Memphis is singing the Prince song 'Kiss', he stops halfway through and says to Mumble "I think you better dance now". This is actually the line from the Tom Jones version of the song. Incidentally, Prince originally refused to allow his song to feature in the film. But after seeing some test footage, he not only changed his mind but also wrote a new song for the film's end credits - which won him the only Golden Globe award in his career.
What's not to like?
Once you've become accustomed to the sight of a colony of penguins possessed by the spirit of Bob Fosse, the film simply works its magic over you. But I might argue that the second half of the film isn't as strong as the first half. For starters, the film's ecological themes take centre stage and Mumble's musical abilities get a little lost in the middle of the lecture. Man is portrayed as a faceless, alien foe that does untold damage to the environment and while this may sadly be true for us as a species, there is little display of the more compassionate side of humanity in the film. The animation itself also undergoes an unusual change, almost becoming a live-action film for a time as the action moves from the frozen tundra of the Antarctic to a zoo in Florida. The film's tone shifts as well, turning from a happy-go-lucky kiddie's film with fantastic songs into something more serious.
Of course, it all gets wrapped up nicely by the end - there was unlikely to be Happy Feet Two if it didn't, after all - so I can't have too many complaints. While it was unlikely to ever change the world, Happy Feet is an enjoyable enough family film that will have the younger viewers entertained and the older ones singing along with it. I would argue that the film's power was weakened by the subsequent release of another CG-animated penguin film not long after - Surf's Up is more of a mockumentary comedy than this, pitching its penguin protagonists into a surfing competition in a much more sunnier affair. And while Happy Feet is the superior movie, there is only so much aquatic avian action I can take. On its own, this is a fine movie and one that happily stands out from the norm despite the reliance on animated tropes like talking animals and the importance of 'being true to yourself'. But for whatever reason, it doesn't quite feel like the knock-out smash it should be.
Should I watch it?
Happy Feet makes a fine addition to anyone's collection of entertaining family films. Brilliantly animated and full of vigour and life, the film's musical trappings distract you long enough from the green messages the film hammers home towards the end. The film also benefits from a cast on top form and characters who are memorable, distinctive and fun to be around. And unlike many so-called family films that are aimed squarely at children, Happy Feet has enough to keep adults amused for a time as well.
Great For: family film nights, promoting environmental awareness, fans of jukebox musicals, animal lovers
Not So Great For: other penguin-based movies, climate-change denying morons, racial stereotyping
What else should I watch?
Like many Hollywood sequels, a film like Happy Feet Two was wholly unnecessary because the first film had achieved everything it set out to do. But George Miller - whose most famous films include the diametrically-opposed Mad Max series - tried anyway, presumably as a result of studio insistence. Miller's own studio Dr. D Studios took over the animation process but unfortunately, the film didn't manage to repeat the success of the first film. Receiving a mixed response from critics, the film failed to recoup its budget and forced the studios to close after just making the one film. What's doubly tragic is that the themes of environmentalism and climate change are as important now as they have ever been (as I'm writing, experts are saying that Europe is experiencing its worst drought in 500 years) and films like Happy Feet are important tools to educate younger viewers, almost as much as any publicity campaign fronted by an angry Swedish teenager refusing to go to school. With the failure of Happy Feet Two, it's not known when we will see the likes of it again.
When I say that there was a proliferation of penguin movies in the early 2000s, I'm not exaggerating. March Of The Penguins was released in 2005, a French documentary narrated by God himself Morgan Freeman (well, the English language version anyway) which covers the arduous journey made by emperor penguins in the harshest environment on Earth in order to raise their chicks. Not only was this followed by a parody film in 2007 (the fairly awful Farce Of The Penguins) but the likes of Happy Feet, Surf's Up and Madagascar (which featured a quartet of scheming penguins rather prominently) all arrived around the same time as well. Other animal-based CG include the fairly average Shark Tale, the forgettable Over The Hedge, the disappointing Open Season and the not-as-funny-as-it-thinks-it-is Bee Movie. Still, at least Kung Fu Panda is worth watching...
|Actor (voice & motion capture)||Role|
Ramon, Cletus, Lovelace & narrator
Noah The Elder
George Miller, John Collee, Judy Morris & Warren Coleman
Release Date (UK)
8th December, 2006
Animation, Adventure, Comedy, Musical
Best Animated Feature
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