The “fish (or, in this case, penguin) out of water” story device isn’t a stranger to animated feature films. Animals and people who don’t quite fit in with their surroundings are a common staple for animated stories. Happy Feet isn’t much different from its predecessors in that regard, although not since Dumbo was harassed by crows for trying to fly has an animal garnered as much sympathy as Mumble, the penguin without a song.
I never knew penguins were such a musical lot. This is something Morgan Freeman left out of his narration of March of the Penguins. Thankfully Happy Feet fills in what the French documentary left out.
It turns out every penguin is born with a song in his or her heart. The penguin hones into the song when they are young and builds onto it until they select a mate, which is, of course, chosen by the appeal of their song. Since penguins mate for life, you can see the need for every penguin to have a song.
Yes, every penguin has a song… except Mumble, a young penguin who was born with skill in dancing, not singing. The oddball penguin scares the rest of his clan, who views him as an anomaly and pushes him out of their society. Outside he finds friends in other penguin clans who don’t put so much emphasis on dancing but reveal another problem the penguins are facing – the fish supply is running out for all penguins. As Mumble and his friends explore the cause behind the fish supply they find the traces of “alien invaders” – mankind.
Happy Feet transcends the typical “fish (or penguin) out of water” concept to take on new, more compelling and timely ideas. The treatment of Mumble by the other penguins, from hazing him to flat out ostracizing the character, is an interesting social commentary. The penguins are so fixated on their old “holy” ways they can’t accept diversity or change. At the same time as Mumble is ostracized from his community, the film also shifts gears and removes the thin veil it had on an environmental conservation commentary. What was always in the movie, only slightly covered, becomes the full focus of the movie: mankind is slovenly when it comes to the planet and our actions have consequences.
With the commentary I instantly became a lot more interested in Happy Feet as a film. I’m already a sucker for animated movies, but this one actually has something to say instead of just rehashing the same plot over and over. The unfortunate thing is that, with the film treading new ground, the filmmakers seem to lose direction of how to take the story where they want it to go. As a result, the story jumps around several times without any real explanation as to how or why, and relies on a strong deus ex machina for its final act.
The one thing that helps the movie overcome plot jumps and weak story elements is the rocking soundtrack. Since the story is strongly focused on song and dance, this is one area the film had to excel. I challenge anyone to sit through Happy Feet without tapping their toes or fingers or even getting up to dance around a bit. The rhythms are compelling, the beats hypnotic, and the songs may be familiar oldies, but their arrangements cast them in a new light much the way Moulin Rouge reinvented its songs.
If the music isn’t strong enough, the animation behind Happy Feet is incredible. The frozen tundra of the North is shown with so much detail and is so photorealistic it blows away prior films who tried to capture similar environments (Ice Age). Warner Brothers raises the bar with this film visually, giving Pixar a run for their money that wound up giving Happy Feet the Oscar win over Disney’s Cars. It’s a win that is easily justified with just a visual comparison of the movies.
Happy Feet looks beautiful and truly hops with its own rhythms. Sure the story jumps around a little bit and the underlying message of the film stops lying under anything and comes out into full view. This film isn’t about subtlety or story. It’s about delivering a message to a happy beat, and that is exactly what it delivers.
The highlight of Happy Feet on home video has to be the movie itself, which is absolutely gorgeous in this DVD transfer. Colors are crisp and the picture is incredibly detailed, while those awesome sound arrangements sing out. This is definitely a movie that will show off whatever impressive video and sound set ups you might have. It’s a good thing the movie looks so good, because the rest of the disc comes up a bit short on bonus material.
Before the movie you are treated to trailers for upcoming flicks like Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Fred Claus. Among the trailers is a short commercial promoting awareness of seafood served in restaurants. For those who wish to be more aware, a seafood awareness wallet card is included in the DVD, provided by the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
The best of the bonus material is an additional animated sequence titled, “Mumble Meets a Blue Whale.” Director George Miller introduces the piece pointing out that conservation and wildlife expert Steve Irwin makes an appearance in the movie. His small role was not the original place Irwin was going to appear though. Originally he played an albatross in this Blue Whale scene. The character is a bit closer to Irwin’s personality, explaining to Mumble about the blue whale he encounters. Mostly though, it’s just a touching reminder of everything Irwin did for the conservation movement and how impressed he was with the message behind the film. The second animated sequence, “A Happy Feet Moment” doesn’t even begin to touch this one.
“Dance Like a Penguin: Stomp to the Beat” is a quick dance lesson with choreographer Savion Glover, who explains important ideas behind dance such as rhythm and balance. I’m sure this featurette will go over with the kiddies who want to emulate Mumble and the other penguins, but for the adult crowd it’s less impressive.
Finally there is the classic Warner Brothers cartoon, “I Love To Singa” which ties in thematically with Happy Feet. For those unfamiliar with the classic short, it features a classical music instructor owl who has a jazz loving son. There are also two music videos that loosely tie into the film.
Sadly, that’s all the DVD has to offer, so I stand by the idea that the film itself is the highlight of the disc. I think a featurette focusing on the conservation idea behind the movie probably would have been appropriate to include and, considering how gorgeous the movie itself is, I would love to have seen some behind the scenes material. Sadly, this is not to be – until, of course, Happy Feet has a sequel in theaters, at which time Warner Brothers may wind up offering Happy Feet 1.5 with more bonus materials.