Happy Feet (2006)

Mike Ward

The penguins learn to refine their engrained vocal skills not in the interest of spiritual uplift or any such, but, basically, to get laid.

Happy Feet

Director: George Miller
Cast: Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving, Anthony LaPaglia
Distributor: Warner Brothers Video
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
First date: 2006
US Release Date: 2006-11-17 (General release)

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.







Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.


Songwriter Shelly Peiken Revisits "Bitch" for '2.0' Album (premiere)

A monster hit for Meredith Brooks in the late 1990s, "Bitch" gets a new lease on life from its co-creator, Shelly Peiken. "It's a bit moodier than the original but it touts the same universal message," she says.


Leila Sunier Delivers Stunning Preface to New EP via "Sober/Without" (premiere)

With influences ranging from Angel Olsen to Joni Mitchell and Perfume Genius, Leila Sunier demonstrates her compositional prowess on the new single, "Sober/Without".


Speed the Plough Members Team with Mayssa Jallad for "Rush Hour" (premiere)

Caught in a pandemic, Speed the Plough's Baumgartners turned to a faraway musical friend for a collaboration on "Rush Hour" that speaks to the strife and circumstance of our time.


Great Peacock Stares Down Mortality With "High Wind" (premiere + interview)

Southern rock's Great Peacock offer up a tune that vocalist Andrew Nelson says encompasses their upcoming LP's themes. "You are going to die one day. You can't stop the negative things life throws at you from happening. But, you can make the most of it."


The 80 Best Albums of 2015

Travel back five years ago when the release calendar was rife with stellar albums. 2015 offered such an embarrassment of musical riches, that we selected 80 albums as best of the year.


Buridan's Ass and the Problem of Free Will in John Sturges' 'The Great Escape'

Escape in John Sturge's The Great Escape is a tactical mission, a way to remain in the war despite having been taken out of it. Free Will is complicated.


The Redemption of Elton John's 'Blue Moves'

Once reviled as bloated and pretentious, Elton John's 1976 album Blue Moves, is one of his masterpieces, argues author Matthew Restall in the latest installment of the 33 1/3 series.


Whitney Take a Master Class on 'Candid'

Although covers albums are usually signs of trouble, Whitney's Candid is a surprisingly inspired release, with a song selection that's eclectic and often obscure.


King Buzzo Continues His Reign with 'Gift of Sacrifice'

King Buzzo's collaboration with Mr. Bungle/Fantômas bassist Trevor Dunn expands the sound of Buzz Osborne's solo oeuvre on Gift of Sacrifice.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.