With its cute tap dancing penguins, you may think that Happy Feet is no more than a cute children's movie. Well, at least that's what we thought after seeing its trailer for the first time. However, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that the film is more akin to an epic, exploring friendships and the courageous act of embracing individuality.
The story's hero is young Mumble, an Emperor penguin that cannot sing. Singing is quite important in penguin society as this is used to attract a mate. Called a "heart song", this special sound draws the line between having a family and a lifetime of being alone. Humans may not be able to identify the unique pitch and tone of each penguin's heart song but to them, this is a heart-tugging serenade that determines true love.
Now, Mumble may have a terrible voice but he does have a very unique talent: tap dancing. This is quite foreign to traditional penguins in the group and so Mumble is frowned upon by others. This, unfortunately, includes his own father Memphis, because his ability "just ain't penguin". Shunned and treated as an outcast, Mumble unwittingly begins his journey of self discovery, befriending different groups of penguins and eventually winning the heart of Gloria, the apple of his eyes.
Somewhere along the way, he also meets Lovelace, a Rockhopper penguin sporting the plastic rings of a six pack. This "gift" he claims to have come from mystic beings almost chokes him when they get snagged while he is swimming. It's a nice message. However, the manic switch to a movie with a hippy-like environmental stance in the middle of the film seems like an afterthought.
The issue of diminishing food source is also highlighted, as Mumble pursues a fishing boat until he is exhausted and is at the brink of death. He ends up on the shore of Australia and is rescued, treated and kept in captivity at Marine World. The long confinement results in madness almost consuming Mumble until a little girl taps the glass of his enclosure and his dancing draws a crowd. The aliens (humans) release Mumble back in the wild with a tracking device. He is then reunited with his colony and he reconciles with his father. When the footage of dancing penguins goes public, world leaders realize what overfishing has done to the animals and they ban all Antarctic fishing. The balance of nature is restored, the end.
Yes, children will be wowed by the gorgeous 3D animation, but looking beyond its charming exterior reveals messages that seem aimed more towards an adult audience. That's not necessarily a bad thing if it were delivered smoothly. Our issue with this is that the mishmash of ideas overshadows some great morals of the story. We would have loved to see more emphasis on Memphis' long due acceptance of his son as well as some depth in terms of penguin society's acceptance of individuality. There were times when we felt that the film's depiction of the species was quite shallow, especially when compared to the more recent avian movie, Owls of Ga'Hoole.
On the plus side, the visuals are nothing short of breathtaking making this one of few penguin movies out there that will really appeal to those fond of these little article dwellers to the same level as penguin games do. Watching the film makes one appreciate the Antarctic's snowy landscapes. The variety of penguin species is remarkable as well, with each one displaying distinct racial traits (such as the Adelie "Amigos"). The dance sequences are entertaining, with the choreography worthy of being displayed alongside traditional, live action dance films. Having an ensemble cast doesn't hurt either, although the typecasting of Robin Williams is anything but surprising.
Though the transitions could use some work, we do view the number and complexity of the messages as a valiant effort. It's not as if it's the first time a film has attempted to bridge the gap between fun and educational. It's simply, the lack of focus that tends to be confusing to young viewers. Thankfully, this can be remedied by grown-ups watching alongside the little ones. On the other hand, if you're past the lunch box age group, watch the movie with an open mind. You'll see that Happy Feet's entertaining merits outshine the mishmash of add-ons.