[Screen It]

(2006) (voices of Elijah Wood, Robin Williams) (PG)

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Computer-animated Dramedy: After being tossed out of his colony for expressing himself through tap dancing rather than song like everyone else, a young emperor penguin sets out to prove his worth by solving the mystery of what's happening to their food supply.
Among the emperor penguins, it's their songs that draw the males and females together, thus resulting in Memphis (voice of HUGH JACKMAN) and Norma Jean (voice of NICOLE KIDMAN) having an egg together. But their offspring, Mumble (voice of ELIJAH WOOD), is different from the other chicks such as Gloria (voice of BRITTANY MURPHY). That might be due to Memphis accidentally letting his egg role off into the icy cold winter, but whatever the case, Mumble can't sing with a darn. But he can tap dance like a pro, an activity that embarrasses his dad and makes the colony's leader, Noah the Elder (voice of HUGO WEAVING), blame the shortage of fish in their food supply on his odd behavior.

He gets the unexpected chance to get away from it all while fleeing from a leopard seal that results in him being far away from home and in the company of Ramon (voice of ROBIN WILLIAMS) and his fellow Adelie penguins. While much shorter than Mumble, they're a lively bunch who accept him for who and what he is, unlike most of fellow kind back home. While playing around with them and encountering an unmanned human tractor, and after hearing of aliens having abducted a predatory bird, Mumble wants to meet the penguin's mystical guru, Lovelace (voice of ROBIN WILLIAMS), for answers.

While still barely holding onto hope that he might impress Gloria enough that she'd become his mate, Mumble becomes preoccupied with discovering whether these so-called aliens have anything to do with the shortage of fish. From that point on, he sets out to do just that, with Lovelace, Ramon and the others unsure if he's doing the right thing, especially regarding the dangers they'll encounter as they accompany him on his quest.

OUR TAKE: 5.5 out of 10
While they've occasionally appeared in movies through the years -- such as the "human" villain in "Batman Returns" and the title character in the little seen 1995 animated film "The Pebble and the Penguin" -- the flightless marine birds of the southern hemisphere are suddenly in what can only be called the Great Penguin Renaissance.

First, they stole the movie (and a cargo ship) as the wily secondary characters in 2005's "Madagascar," and then won over everyone's hearts in "March of the Penguins" by showing the degree of determination they possess while caring for their young and keeping their species thriving.

Thus, I guess it's no surprise that we now have "Happy Feet," a computer-animated dramedy where they make up all of the main characters. Part standard kids film, part socio-political message flick, the movie presumably gets its name -- or at least inspiration -- from the old comedy bit where Steve Martin's "dogs" suddenly came alive and moved across the floor in some sort of inspired, dancing glee.

Here, our main character, Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), hatches from his egg and immediately goes into Martin mode, with his little footsies flitting around as if he has to tinkle. That's a problem in his emperor penguin colony, however, as not only is it weird (to the others), but his gift at footwork has also left him lacking in the singing department. And since his kind must sing to attract a mate, his future as a penguin husband, father, and/or song and dance man doesn't seem promising.

Not surprisingly, the film follows the standard children's plot of a kid character who's different, doesn't fit in, and must eventually learn the lesson that both are okay. Accordingly, and following in the footprints of films ranging from "Dumbo" to "The Lion King," the story then has the main character removed from his group so that he can meet a group of comical sidekicks who help him regain his confidence so that he can make his triumphant return.

However, this film has more than just that usual thematic element, as it's also after bigger fish to fry. Actually, and to be more accurate, it takes a stand on mankind's influence on the animal world, ranging from the over-fishing of the seas to what life in captivity does to wild animals.

The transition from the initial "accept others" message to the more environmentally conscious one is introduced by the penguin colony's leader (voiced by Hugo Weaving). He blames the shortage of their fish-based prey on Mumble and his odd and so-called pagan behavior, thus meaning the young penguin sets aside his toe-tapping to investigate the source of their problems.

That leads to late-in-the-film bits about commercial fishing as well as keeping animals in zoos, and the latter results in a brief homage to the HAL 9000 computer talking to Dave in that non-reassuringly smooth computer voice. Nevertheless, the switch in tone is rather abrupt and will probably be jarring to younger viewers, although if they've seen "Babe: Pig in the City," they might recognize to some extent that director George Miller (who once made all of the "Mad Max" flicks) is trying to make the same sort of thinking person's, children's film.

Now, before that makes you think the offering is too heavy and/or heavy-handed, it should be noted that while those elements -- penned by Miller and co-writers John Collee, Judy Morris and Warren Coleman -- fuel the film, they mostly comprise the submerged, lower half of the symbolic iceberg. Up top, and for a good chunk of its short running time, the film is a dazzling piece of eye candy, filled with an enormous amount of songs (covering a wide gamut of genres) that will probably entertain the little ones.

Yet, for older kids and especially adults, all of those tunes might just feel like too much filler, as one music number or montage follows the next and so on. While the songs are thematically tied to the story arc -- and some are done with compelling twists, such as a more somber version of "Leader of the Pack" -- they also might just come off more as guaranteed soundtrack sellers.

And while Steve Martin may be present only in foot spirit, Robin Williams is most definitely around, voicing not one but two secondary characters as well as the occasional narrator in the film, adding to his vocal resume of films such as "Aladdin" and "Robots." He gets a number of funny or at least amusing lines, but having one character (and his buddies) sounding Latino seems more of a gimmick just to do accents than something natural or necessary for the film and its story. Other vocal work from Wood, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, and others is generally fine.

But it's the tremendous computer-animation that most viewers will remember. Whether it's the main character tap dancing (done using Savion Glover in motion capture mode where his movements were recorded and fed into the computers), the various action sequences, or just the setting and all of the fine details, the films visuals are stunning and amazing to behold.

I just wish the story was more original in the first half and done better in the second when the message ends up overriding the entertainment factor. Decent in parts but featuring too many songs and an abrupt if cinematically intrepid (although not entirely successful attempt) to infuse an environmental message into a film aimed at kids, "Happy Feet" may get the toes tapping, but might not have everyone dancing in glee. It rates as a 5.5 out of 10.

Reviewed November 11, 2006 / Posted November 17, 2006

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