Like the classic animated Disney movies from decades ago — “Bambi,” for example, or “Dumbo” — “Happy Feet” isn’t afraid to get a little serious, a little dark. It isn’t afraid to mix in some substance with its style.
That’s also precisely what makes it so different from the inordinately large number of computer-animated movies that have come storming into theaters this year, despite the fact that superficially it may look so similar. You’ve got your all-star voice cast (Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman), your soundtrack that’s chock full of pop tunes (Prince, Beach Boys, Stevie Wonder), and of course, your talking animals.
This time they’re penguins — and they’re cute. Very, very cute. Irresistible, actually, just as they proved to be in the Oscar-winning documentary “March of the Penguins.” (You’ll see several images in “Happy Feet” that also appeared in that film, though as director and co-writer George Miller points out, his movie was in the works long before “March of the Penguins” came out.)
Miller and a team of writers and artists vividly bring to life the penguins’ mating process in Antarctica: the choosing of a partner; the laying of an egg; the long, agonizing stretch in which the father protects it from blizzard conditions; and the eventual return of the mother with food for the hatchling. The visuals can be both intimate and breathtakingly grand. The filmmakers sent two research crews to the Antarctic to capture lighting, textures and landscape details to recreate them realistically in their computers; the results are dazzling, unbelievably tactile.
All that work, though, supports a story that has real meaning, that can be deeply poignant, and isn’t just a nonstop, madcap frenzy of color, noise and cutesy pop-culture references. This should come as no surprise from Miller, a three-time Oscar nominee who co-wrote and produced the modern classic “Babe.”
Young Mumble (Wood) is a little different from the rest of the penguins, the result of being briefly exposed to the elements while he was still in his shell. He’s incapable of belting out his own unique song, something inside every penguin and something his parents both unquestionably possess: His father, Memphis (Jackman), is an Elvis sound-alike; his mother, Norma Jean (Kidman), has that sexy, breathy Marilyn Monroe thing going.
The one talent he’s had since day one, his dancing ability, is deemed weird among the other penguins. Even Gloria (Brittany Murphy), his one friend from childhood who happens to have the best singing voice of all, has trouble completely accepting him. So the goodhearted Mumble is nonetheless a total outcast — though he should be the most popular guy on the iceberg with Savion Glover providing his tap moves behind the scenes through stop-motion animation.
Once the fish supply becomes sparse, Mumble begins to think some outside force is to blame, but the elders (led by a crotchety old man voiced by Hugo Weaving) won’t listen and ultimately use his outspokenness as an excuse to exile him for good.
He’s not alone for long. Mumble quickly meets a bunch of Latino penguins who are wowed by his dance moves and want to hang out with him. They think he’s cool. And with his new amigos, led by the cocky Ramon (Williams, a voiceover veteran who’s finally honed his seemingly boundless energy), he’s happy and confident for the first time in his young life.
But he’s still curious to find out what’s happened to all the fish, and he becomes even more suspicious after visiting Lovelace the guru (Williams, again), a soulful, wild-feathered penguin who provides only cryptic answers to his many questions.
“Happy Feet” follows Mumble on a journey of discovery, of himself and the world, which can be both harrowing and thrilling. A scene in which he and his new pals go barreling down a steep, snowy slope on their bellies is a wonder of timing and choreography, as is a run-in with a couple of killer whales. (The late Steve Irwin provides the voice of an elephant seal who helps point Mumble in the right direction.)
“Happy Feet” feels more filmic that most animated offerings with its long shots and less frantic pace, a refreshing change for adults. Kids will still love it, though, and many were dancing at their seats during a recent screening. (They don’t call it “Happy Feet” for nothing.)
Everything wraps up a bit too neatly at the end, and the eco-friendly message may seem too pat. These are small things to forgive in what is otherwise easily the best animated film of the year.