Happy Feet

Featuring the voices of Elijah Wood, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, and Robin Williams. Rated general.

Last year’s March of the Penguins taught us how penguins eat, sleep, and breed in defiance of a harsh Antarctic environment. In Happy Feet, we learn that these lovable waterfowl can do more than march: they also samba, cha-cha, and tap-dance.

Especially tap-dance—this movie has some of the greatest tapping since Basi and Virk. The dancers are so graceful and athletic that their moves seem impossible. Which, of course, they are, this being an animated cartoon. Happy Feet is not science but commerce. And, possibly, art.

Contrary to its trailers, this movie is not really about penguins tap-dancing but about their repression of that impulse. In the world of Happy Feet, penguins find love, solace, and community through singing. Each one is born with a “Heart Song” that emerges as their guiding muse—and which tends to be classic rock.

Our hero is Mumble (voiced initially by Elizabeth Daily and then by Elijah Wood). Though the chick of two excellent singers (voiced by Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman), Mumble can only produce a dismaying howl. His compensatory footwork earns him only the scorn of the community, an ill-fed and therefore grumbly lot. Soon Mumbles is on his own, about to meet new friends (including two flavours of the not-totally-played-out Robin Williams) on a strange journey.

I’ve been enjoying the Happy Feet fruit snacks for several weeks and am pleased to report that the movie leaves an equally bizarre and artificial, yet strangely addicting, aftertaste. Director-producer George Miller, further demonstrating his wild eclecticism (the Mad Max movies, Babe, The Witches of Eastwick, Lorenzo’s Oil), evidently decided that his first fully animated movie should have as much detail as a nature documentary. Careful attention to the physics of water, motion capture, and texture create a somewhat unsettling hyperreality. There are rather fewer gags, and more woes, than one ?normally sees in kid-friendly features. It’s almost an un-cartoon.

When the penguins eventually do start to dance, the effect is striking—that is, transfixing and slightly worrisome.