Happy Feet is the first major movie to try to exploit the runaway success of 2005’s March of the Penguins. In their animated version, the eternally suffering birds lug eggs through the lengthy Antarctic night and forage in hostile waters so that, when spring breaks, they can sing. Happy Feet opens with a preposterously annoying musical number: a roiling stew of various songs from the Beatles’ “Carry That Weight” and Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel” to Tom Jones’ “Kiss,” all so thoroughly revamped and overproduced that they lose their original charm.
This loss betokens the penguin society’s more general bankruptcy. Its schools teach nothing but music and the penguins learn to refine their engrained vocal skills not in the interest of spiritual uplift or any such, but, basically, to get laid. “You want to meet beautiful girl?” asks penguin vocal coach Miss Viola (Magda Szubanski). “You want to make the egg? Then sing!” Great. A fictional, anthropomorphic society in which heterosexual coupling and procreation constitute life’s sole aim. Sounds almost as shitty and unfulfilling as the society we homo sapiens have built for ourselves.
Introduced into this tiresome milieu is runtish, pale Mumble (Elijah Wood), born without the singing prowess with which all other penguins are blessed, evidently because his father Memphis (Hugh Jackman) dropped him during incubation. Instead, Mumble discovers, he’s a consummate tap dancer, a fact that understandably delights him (I’d be perfectly happy to have been born with a preternatural capacity for either discipline), but shocks and offends his brethren. They malign his dancing as carnal and abnormal (again calling to mind Elvis, of the sinful hip gyrations), and insist he’s not singing right because he isn’t trying hard enough.
In response, Mumble redoubles his efforts to sing, which only makes him sound more conspicuously awful. Eventually he’s ostracized from the herd and consigned to sorrowful solitude. After eluding a ferocious sea lion, he discovers another penguin tribe, with members much smaller than he and duly impressed with his skills at improvisational soft shoe.
Here, finally, Happy Feet starts to pull out of its nose dive. Our first glimmer of hope comes in the form of Ramón (Robin Williams), a tiny penguin with a positive attitude and a quartet of similarly diminutive compadres. (When Ramón comes on screen, Happy Feet feels like a completely different movie, well-written, enthusiastically performed, and thoroughly amusing.) Together, Ramón and Mumble work towards reintegrating Mumble into his original tribe, a process that includes wooing his lady love, Gloria (Brittany Murphy).
They also tackle a separate problem, an emerging lack of edible fish for the two tribes. Predictably, Mumble, Ramón, and their friends discover that industrial fishing by humans—whom they call “aliens”—is causing the crisis in their food supply. The humans here are emphatically the Other, their artifacts mammoth and bizarre (their first significant manifestation is an enormous earthmover that tumbles out of an avalanche and nearly crushes the penguins before sinking to the bottom of the ocean) and their faces smooth and computerized. This isn’t an uncommon trick in animated movies: The Secret of N.I.M.H. (1982), Watership Down (1978), among others, trade in this convention, although Happy Feet stops short of their overt misanthropy.
In its opening reel, Happy Feet seems to endorse penguin reproduction as a worthy end in itself. But later, it suggests other options for penguin significance. When Mumble rebuffs Gloria because he fears they might not be able to have children, her unlikely response is, “I don’t need an egg to be happy.” Or later, Mumble finally draws a bead on the “aliens” for the first time and dives spectacularly into the water after them, one of his amazed entourage calls after him, “I’m going to be telling your story, Happy Feet, long after you’re dead and gone.” If procreation is largely a question of legacy, the movie here intones, there are other ways to see that one’s own name endures, principal among them, apparently, selfless heroism.