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Happy Feet – these penguinpromorphised penguins rock!

"snow business like show business"

"snow business like show business"

Happy Feet – George Miller

Cosmically kitsch. And a pure delight. This absurd, irresistible mixture of genres, movies, performers and most of all, great foot-tapping music, like any good cocktail, delivers a terrific punch, even if at times it is a tad too sweet. It’s farcical, surreal, witty exuberance will make you laugh out loud, and engages you with its knowing sense of fun. Beg, borrow or steal some kids; take your mother, your lover, your spouse; or just treat yourself and sneak in on your own. It’s a gas. Take your new boy/girlfriend – if they don’t laugh, find someone else, they clearly have no sense of humour.

Usually it’s the ultimate in nerd-dom to spot movie references. Here it’s just fun. Take every America teen movie ever made, stir in West Side Story, a dash of Dirty Dancing, a few cubes of Robin Williams stand-up (his best genre), sprinkle a bit of The Trueman Show on top and round off with a drop of HAL the computer from 2001 Space Odyssey, and you’re half way there. Add a slice each of Singin’ in the Rain and 42nd Street and the result knocks your socks off. Then penguinpromorphise the lot and Happy Feet will charm you out of your common sense and sceptical rationality.

Ostensibly set in the Antarctic amongst a colony of emperor penguins, this movie actually takes place in a kind of Disneyland high on pot. Elvis look-alike (yes – really) Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Monroe-voiced (Nicole Kidman) Norma-Jean are two emperor penguins who mate and knock out an egg. As penguins do, Memphis hibernates the egg while Norma-Jean heads off to fill up with fish. Memphis by accident commits the ultimate ‘guin’-sin of losing the egg for a few moments in the intense cold, scoops it back and hopes it’s ok.

When Norma-Jean returns to bring stored-up food to Memphis and her offspring, their baby, Mumble (Elijah Wood) takes a while to de-egg. Mumble, from the start, is ‘different’. Especially, he is tone deaf so can’t develop his ‘heart-song’ which is essential in later life to pull the birds – so to speak. This little guy ain’t got rhythm in his voice – but his feet rock. Man can he dance! But of course, you will understand it’s absurd that a penguin can tap-dance but not sing a note. So he is mocked and laughed at. Naturally, without a heart-song he can’t graduate with the other penguins but still heads off with them when it’s time to hit the ice to reach the sea. Mumble is the most loveable loser in town and comes to the notice of sexy soul songstress Gloria (Brittany Murphy).

After some superbly animated sequences of the young penguins doing Red Arrow-like underwater manoeuvres, Antarctic adventures ensue. Separated from his own group, Mumble hooks up with a gang of ice wise, hip-talking Adele penguins led by Ramon (Williams). (Think West Side Story ‘Sharks’ with attitude). These guys dig Mumble’s cool steps and befriend him. Mumble sets himself the task of discovering who is taking all the fish and threatening the survival of the colony. Ramon and the guys take him to consult Lovelace (Williams again) – the Adele guru – with a voice like Barry White and the libidinouos charisma of a James Brown. Like the wizard of Oz, Lovelace is a phoney, his symbol of Gurudom, obtained from his abduction by ‘aliens’ proving to be the plastic ring holder for a six-pack of beer. With Lovelace in tow, Mumble and the guys set off to find the aliens and ask about the fish-shortage. There follow funny, scary, brilliantly animated encounters with the scariest sea-lion on ice, a colony of laconic Aussie elephant seals and two acrobatic but very mean killer whales before Mumble sets off alone after a fleet of ‘alien’ ships.

Ending up in the Truman Show-like surreal setting of a zoo aquarium Mumble slips into a ‘gotta dance’ routine that gets him noticed by the aliens (humans) and returned to his colony fixed up with a tracking device. There he takes on the religious elders, who regard dancing as a blasphemy to the great (mighty?) ‘Guin’. Mumble points out that though the aliens can’t speak penguin, they respond to dancing. So the humans arrive by helicopter to be greeted by thousands of penguins doing a perfectly choreographed 42nd Street routine that would stop the show on Broadway. So Happy Feet’s happy ending has the humans banning Antarctic fishing.

This is all deliciously silly. The animation has wit, style and imagination. The story-line seduces you out of your disbelief. And throughout, the priceless juxtaposition of cool music from rock, through soul to some deep down dirty blues, with these wonderfully comic creatures makes them seem more real than the ‘aliens’ that threaten their ecosystem. Forget the real thing, those guys only march – these penguinpromorphised hip, kitschy, cuddly-toy cats dance up a storm. These penguins rock.

(January 2007)

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