George Miller’s “Happy Feet” is like “March of the Penguins” reconceived as a Super Bowl halftime show. It has lots of singing, lots of splashing and a vigorous pro-environment message.
Oh, yeah — there’s also his bizarre “2001: A Space Odyssey” homage. More on that later.
For now, meet Mumble, a fl uffy emperor penguin chick regarded as a pariah by his fellow fl ightless waterfowl at the South Pole. You see, Mumble can’t sing, which — in the fervid imaginations of Miller and co-writers Warren Coleman, John Collee and Judy Morris — is pretty much the sine qua non of emperor penguin existence. And not just silly little Disney jingles, either, but full, hymnal choruses of Queen’s “Somebody to Love” while back-lit, en masse, under the aurora borealis. (You have to hand it to Miller — it’s a striking image, if a tad preposterous.)
Instead of carrying a tune, Mumble expresses himself by doing tap dance — a trait that inspires suspicion and bewilderment in his fellows as the chick grows into an awkward adolescent who still has downy tufts where slick, waterproof feathers should be. Elijah Wood provides the voice of Mumble, and fittingly so; the onetime Frodo has become his generation’s Mickey Rooney, the perennial puberty case.
Is it arch to observe that Mumble — in addition to being the most awkward and callow of the young penguins — also looks and sounds the whitest? Like the folks who made “Shark Tale,” Miller divides the animal world into ethnic fiefdoms. At one point, Mumble is harassed by hungry, “Goodfellas”-accented sea gulls.
Later, by accident, he discovers a settlement of runty Adelie penguins who talk like Spanish Harlem teenagers but are ruled by a Barry White-style waterfowl love god (Robin Williams, in stand-up mode). The elephant seals are all Aussies, including one voiced by the late, lamented Steve Irwin.
The lesson Mumbles teaches us, naturally, is that everyone has a place in the world, even if it doesn’t fit squarely with the norm. Miller, bless him, indulges no subtlety. When the emperor penguin elders demand that Mumbles stop his “freakiness with the feet,” the young penguin gallantly insists that “there’s nothing wrong with me,” like a gay teen about to head off for Broadway.
When Mumble’s father (Hugh Jackman, doing an Elvis impersonation) tearfully confesses that “I was a backslider once myself,” well, one must wonder.
Between the sundry song-and-dance sequences, Miller and his animators conceive some memorable imagery, including a breathtaking slog through a blustery tundra that recalls the epic visual composition of David Lean. And then there’s the “2001: A Space Odyssey” thing. Mumbles, determined to disprove the elders’ superstitious explanation of the ocean’s fish shortage, leaves the South Pole to confront what he calls “aliens” — i.e. us.
The events that follow beggar rational explanation, but let’s just say that Miller’s point is well taken: What do endangered species have to do before we take their plight seriously? Dance?