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Movie review: 'Happy Feet'

Nancy Churnin
The Dallas Morning News

There's an inevitability to "Happy Feet" from the moment this animated film launches its premise -- a penguin, Mumble, is an outcast because he dances rather than sings.

Wanna bet that the flippered naysayers will discover that the very "disability" of this misfit, like the glowing red nose of Rudolph, will turn into an asset?

But once you get past that plot device, there's a lot to charm. Writer and director George Miller, the artistic force behind the beloved "Babe" and the "Babe: Pig in the City" movies, brings a concern for penguins that recalls the devotion showed by "March of the Penguins." And before viewers fault "Happy Feet" for being a copy-bird, it should be noted that the genesis of this film, which took four years to produce, predated the release of the documentary.

As in "March," Miller takes us on a stirring journey of the monogamous mating of penguins and their parental devotion. Males nurture the eggs through a brutal winter while females search frantically for food to bring to their offspring in time for their hatch.

Helping the medicine go down for the kids are the laughs, mostly generated from Robin Williams, who plays two parts -- Ramon, the puffed-up penguin who admires Mumble's dancing almost as much as he admires himself, and Lovelace, the penguin guru who has the answer to everything.

With the "Babe" movies, Miller used real animals. In "Happy Feet," he uses motion capture techniques on human actors to film moves that he melds with the animated penguin figures. It's complicated, but it gets a stunning payoff when Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) dances with Savion Glover's breathless tap routines.

The movie is being released simultaneously on IMAX, and the large screen format suits the expansive panorama of Antarctica well.

The strong voice cast includes molasses-voiced Brittany Murphy as Mumble's love interest, Gloria, and Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman as Mumble's parents, a breathy Norma Jean and the Elvis-like Memphis. (Fresh from his Wolverine and Roddy the "Flushed Away" Mouse, the Tony award-winning song and dance-man can now add penguin to his animal repertoire.).

Because the penguins in the movie revere each penguin's use of a heart-song to find a mate, there is a lot of singing, which may test the patience of the younger kids. Also, those brought up on "Mary Poppins" and those fabulous dancing penguin waiters, may be more than a bit befuddled by the uptight elders with their "Footloose" phobia.

Miller is clearly using those elders to warn how leaders can invoke religion to stamp out diversity and individuality. But he has even more to say about how humans -- or `aliens' as the penguins call us -- need to stop commandeering the fish penguins need to survive. Can a little soft-shoe from Mumble, who spends a heart-wrenching segment trapped in a giant aquarium, get the humans' attention?

A tad unrealistic, sure. But it's also idealistic and a point worth taking to heart. Besides, we'll take any excuse to watch that Savion dance.

HAPPY FEET

Grade: B

Starring the voices of Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Brittany Murphy and Robin Williams. Directed by George Miller. PG (for some mild peril and rude humor). 108 min. In wide release.

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