***/**** Image A- Sound A Extras B-
screenplay by George Miller, John Collee, Judy Morris, Warren Coleman
directed by George Miller
by Walter Chaw For no other purpose, really, than that I loved its unabashed perversity and darkness, I used to make an annual ritual of watching George Miller's Babe: Pig in the City. The image of Mickey Rooney in full clown regalia, sopping at an ice cream cone, is the stuff of nightmares, as well as a marvellous example of how much Aussie director George Miller got away with halfway around the world from his financiers. As a kid's show, Babe II's success has a lot to do with it recognizing how familiar is fear and isolation in the life of a youngster, and providing solutions to things that alarm instead of denying their existence. Watching the director's latest, Happy Feet, the moment Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood, danced by Savion Glover) woke up in a zoo after an odyssey in pursuit of a commercial fishing vessel and was told by his inmate, a HAL-voiced fellow penguin, "Try the water, Dave. The water's real, Dave," I realized that we were down the same rabbit hole with Miller, seeing zoo animals as insane at best, made so by the drudgery of routine and the inability to communicate with their jailers. It's a fertile image amidst Happy Feet's most fertile passage (and its connection to the Starchild sequence in 2001 is the second such allusion in a film this month (see also: The Fountain)), one that ends with Mumble tying the secret of interspecies understanding to that old minstrel trick of tap-dancing for a very particular audience of otherwise disinterested aliens.
There's a great deal going on in Happy Feet. Social castes are flayed bare with a frankness unheard of in polite entertainment as the hero penguin--flawed (retarded, even) in his ability to communicate through song but gifted with funk and that loping, soulful gait of Glover's (an artist who by himself reshaped his medium)--befriends a quintet of "amigos" in the Antarctic barrio. The infant love story at its centre, with Mumble looking for another way to woo his beloved Gloria (Brittany Murphy, who can sing if she can't act), is in fact the MacGuffin of the piece (and an inoffensive, diverting one at that), a nod to convention like the first Babe's struggle to not be eaten and the second's quest for reunion: it's the Latino sidekicks, the African-American leopard seal villain, and the surreal, voice-less killer whales that give the picture its jolt of contemporary maturity. Moreover, Happy Feet's eco-politics are presented cogently and without the embarrassing scolding of mainstream fare like Fast Food Nation, while its ultimate hope for a free exchange of ideas in a world forum (the UN features prominently in its last half hour), coloured though they may be by entertainment media and our strange weakness for "cute," is actually genuinely inspirational.
There's a road map to saving ourselves in Happy Feet and it has something to do with revelling in difference rather than being repelled by it--of rolling ourselves up in alien culture so that a common language is rooted out. The climax of the picture reminds a great deal--self-consciously, I think--of the Devil's Tower sequence from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in that it, too, details the way that artistic expression can lead to a kind of joyous union. Pushing a message as frothy as this one with points scored along political lines and with an almost complete lack of syrupy sentimentality to gum up the works, the film's inevitable box-office victory (penguins are more of a sure thing nowadays than Harry Potter) is cause for celebration, in no small part because Miller is one of the few directors who deserves the freedom to do whatever the hell he wants. If Happy Feet is more pedestrian in its middle sections and clearly compromised (Robin Williams, anyone?), it still has more meat on its bones than any number of CGI fantasias from this year's bumper crop and, better, holds the promise that there's a Pig in the City waiting in the wings. Originally published: November 17, 2006.
by Bill Chambers Warner shepherds Happy Feet to DVD in a 2.40:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer.* Computer-animation always looks good on the format, but this direct-to-digital port would've left the home versions of this year's other CG extravaganzas (Open Season, The Ant Bully, et al) in the dust were it not for the superfluous--and conspicuous, given the preponderance of black-on-white--application of edge-enhancement. (There's even a bit of mosquito noise in the earlygoing, something that plagues the concurrent release of Blood Diamond as well.) Nevertheless, contrast is rich and colouring and saturation are exquisite, so if you can overlook the haloing artifacts (which are blessedly inconsistent), you're in for some eye candy. The accompanying Dolby Digital 5.1 EX audio is dynamite; despite some controversy about it being encoded at 384kbps instead of the now-standard 448kbps (to accommodate an additional pair of EX-encoded dubs, methinks), this is a crystalline and phenomenally-immersive track that gives off an IMAX vibe during both the musical numbers and the Rube Goldberg-style action sequences.
Extras are meagre, though I suspect they're hoarding material for a double-dip: would cuddly mad scientist George Miller really take time out of his schedule to tape a 30-second intro to a single deleted scene? Miller's mug prefaces "Mumble Meets a Blue Whale" (3 mins.), an elided passage that has been animated to completion in honour of the late Steve Irwin, who voices an albatross therein. Although predictably dazzling, it's easy to see why the titular encounter was thought expendable from a narrative standpoint. Another newly-finished and considerably more demented bit, "A Happy Feet Moment" (27s), finds Memphis--at least I think it's Memphis--using Mumbles as a hacky sack; it cries out for contextualization of some sort, but none is provided. Meanwhile, "Dance Like a Penguin: Stomp to the Beat" is a 5-minute juvie dance lesson courtesy Mumbles' alter ego Savion Glover, who, like anybody with a natural gift, makes it look easy. The videos for Gia's "Hit Me Up" and Prince's "The Song of the Heart" fill out the special features alongside Tex Avery's vastly-preferable 1936 Merry Melody I Love to Singa (8 mins.), about a family of musically-prodigious owls whose patriarch is so intolerant of jazz that he disowns his scat-singin' newborn; the young crooner ("Owl Jolson," natch) goes on to impress on "The Jack Bunny Show". In terms of Avery's career, it's sweeter and not quite as pomo as his later work--but it's still leagues more ribald than anything that was then coming out of Disney. Happy Feet's theatrical trailer rounds out the disc, while semi-forced non-anamorphic trailers for Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Fred Claus, IMAX Deep Sea 3-D, The Nativity, and Nancy Drew plus a PSA on the environmentally-conscious consumption of seafood cue up on startup. Inserting the platter in a ROM drive brings up a selection of weblinks. Originally published: March 19, 2007.