Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Happy Feet (2006)

Happy Feet (George Miller, 2006)

Penguins, those tuxedo-ed flightless birds of the Antarctic, are adorably cute. Children know this, which is probably the reason why Happy Feet would do well in the box office, the same way the doc March of the Penguins (Luc Jacquet, 2005) did rather well despite its National Geographic-appropriate genre. Now, let the penguins sing contemporary songs, dance, tap-dance, and you have just discovered the cure for depression. George Miller, who also directed post-apocalyptic cult classics Mad Max (1979) and its sequels who turned nice and fuzzy upon hitting the jackpot in the talking animals/family pic genre with Babe (Chris Noonan, 1995; which he produced) and Babe: Pig in the City (1998), won't be satisfied in treading the Pixar path to success (brilliant CGI yet generic story lines). Instead, he conjures religious allegories, semi-political and environmental activism and places them upon the shoulders of those black and white cuddly fowls.

Choreographed penguins merrily outdo each other's love songs to catch the attention of top chick Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman). Memphis (Hugh Jackman), Elvis-impersonating honcho manages to win the love of Norma Jean. Their love produces Mumble (Elijah Wood), who never manages to outgrow his fuzzy feathers or develop the proper vocal muscles to churn out a mate-worthy heart song. Mumble, however, has the gift of tap-dancing, which he will use in his mission to discover the roots behind the fish shortage in their colony.

Mumble figures that the root to the fish shortage is the appearance of "aliens" in their icy midst. Second-hand stories from a predator hawk and later an amorous penguin named Lovelace (Robin Williams, who also lends his voice to one of Mumble's Latino penguin crew). The plot is stretched beyond plausible terms and it might take some minutes of disbelief before everything becomes agreeable again. Just when the connection between these singing penguins and the human world turns apparent, the story takes us to Mumble's epic quest against the backdrop of heavy blizzards, pessimistic elephant seals, hungry killer whales, and a first-hand experience with the "aliens"'s devious and greedy mechanisms. The period of adjustment from fantastical glee to Miller's preachy realism might have stunted the already problematic pacing, but in the end, everything works.

It feels like Miller had much less of a rhythm than his heroic Mumble. Absent the many musical numbers and the glorious dance routines, Happy Feet makes the unfortunate mistake of burdening itself with the duty of making itself look good on IMAX. That simply meant that there will be a number of idiotic action sequences, of avalanches and snow-diving and underwater chases, which somehow interrupt the flow of the film's narrative. I would probably appreciate the artistic and technical merits of those showoff-y interludes if i saw it on IMAX but since I didn't, they felt more gratuitous than pertinent. I may come off as a grumpy killjoy since those sequences are the money moments of any CGI film but I'm sure Happy Feet can carry itself finely without overindulging it's lifelike computer creations.

Nitpicking aside, Happy Feet is genuinely filling entertainment. I expected mere eye candy but I came out of the theater with my present cynicism challenged. Happy Feet's greatest success is probably its ability to conjure pure and sincere emotions from the white icy landscapes of its settings and the shallow pixels of its digital origins, the latter being a truly great feat.

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