On Thin Ice

Penguins dance their hearts out but poor plot of `Happy Feet' trips tehm up

Review C

November 17, 2006|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,Sun movie Critic

Ready for March of the Penguins: The Musical?

That, at least, is what Happy Feet aspires to be. But a musical version of last year's surprise documentary hit would need to be far better than this animated effort, a wan, ultimately tedious affair that spends half its time on some heavy-handed moralizing, the other half in the mistaken belief that people can never get enough of singing penguins.

Hey, I love singing fowl as much as the next guy, and what better bird to have belting-out tunes than the ones who come with their own ready-made tuxedoes? One or two numbers, and this film could have been a real hoot. But after about a gazillion songs - everything from Queen to Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder - the act gets old. Especially when there's not much of a story line to buck it up.

Happy Feet posits an Antarctica that's like an endless Vegas lounge act; every emperor penguin, it seems, is obligated to find his or her voice and break out into song. All's well and tuneful until a penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood) comes along. He can't sing a note, but he sure can dance!

Unfortunately, the penguin flock is suffering from a shortage of fish, and the penguin elders (their leader voiced by The Matrix's Hugo Weaving) blame it all on Mumble, whose inability to carry a tune, they reason, must be so offensive to the penguin gods that they've taken away the fish as punishment.

And so poor Mumble is ostracized and cast out of the flock. Things look bleak for our sure-footed hero until he meets up with a group of Hispanic penguins, who marvel at both his great size (they're just plain old penguins, much smaller than the emperors) and his fancy footwork. Emboldened by his newfound acceptance, Mumble decides to investigate what really is causing the fish shortage

Director George Miller committed the be-true-to-yourself mantra to film much better 11 years ago with Babe. That film, in which a talking pig learns to cherish his individuality, was about so much more than a chatty porker that it got nominated for a Best Picture Oscar. But Happy Feet never moves beyond the wonder of singing penguins. And, really, how moronic is it that a bunch of singing penguins can't appreciate a bird that dances? Haven't they ever been to a Broadway musical or seen Chicago?

Happy Feet also seems to have recruited Al Gore to finish the last two-thirds of its script. The movie abruptly turns into a plea for environmental sensitivity. (It shouldn't surprise anyone that man's overfishing is responsible for the fish shortage.) Again, there's nothing wrong with the idea, but Miller and his fellow screenwriters layer things on with a shovel. Bambi, too, preached environmental sensitivity, but without resorting to what is little more than a stern-faced lecture.

Among the film's few genuine bright spots is Robin Williams as the voice of Ramon, one of the penguins Mumble befriends. Williams' manic energy is used to great effect, as Ramon gets off the film's best wisecracks (many of them ad-libbed, I bet). But even Williams' performance suffers from the too-much-of-a-good-thing syndrome, as he's also the voice of two additional characters, including the overly bombastic Lovelace, a penguin-philosopher whose charm wears thin almost immediately.

Others in the voice cast include Australian Hugh Jackman, who inexplicably is asked to provide the voice of Mumble's Elvis-influenced father, Memphis - with all the Elvis impersonators in the United States, the filmmakers had to recruit an actor from Down Under? - and Nicole Kidman as Mumble's understanding mother, Norma Jean. Another Australian actor channeling another American icon, in this case, Marilyn Monroe? Is this some sort of conspiracy?

Ah, let's not go there. Happy Feet has enough problems without getting conspiracy theorists all riled up. Let's just say this is a perfect film for penguin lovers who also are devoted members of the Green party - and leave it at that.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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