Going into “Happy Feet,” I knew nothing about penguin culture. I missed the “March of the Penguins” hype-train, and I was ill-prepared for the penguin world. Luckily, “Happy Feet” taught me right off the bat that Emperor Penguins find their mates via song, that the males take care of the egg while the females go hunting and that a penguin that can’t sing pop songs will most likely half-develop, be shunned by society and be forced to find a new way to express themselves… like dancing and becoming globally-aware.
When Memphis (Hugh Jackman) is left to take care of his new egg while his wife Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) is out hunting, he makes the mistake of dropping said egg into the snow. A big no-no, this leads to some developmental issues when the egg hatches, delivering a tone-deaf runt named Mumbles (Elijah Wood), addicted to tap-dancing instead of the normal sing-songy animal-in-a-fur-tuxedo.
That’s the crux of the main story, the outsider trying to find their place in structured society. Unable to sing, Mumbles can’t woo the penguin of his dreams, Gloria (Brittany Murphy), and he therefore finds himself dwelling on things other penguins might not dwell on… like the aliens stealing all the penguins’ fish.
What!?! Aliens!?! Of course not, that’s just how the penguins see the human population, and the b-story of this film. While Mumbles travels from iceberg to iceberg (meeting another crew of penguins all voiced by variations of Robin Williams), trying to find a place to fit in, he becomes obsessed with turning around the fish famine currently gripping his species (a fish famine that eventually gets blamed on him for his blasphemous dancing). This leads to a third act where Mumbles chases a fishing boat out to sea, eventually finding himself in a zoo where, lo and behold, he becomes a star attraction due to his dancing.
Where the film falters is that the storylines don’t really gel as well as they should, with Mumbles decision to go after the source of the fish famine less of a natural choice and more of a “well, guess it’s time to switch up the plot” moment. Which is unfortunate, because with maybe a little more story-massaging, the current is much smoother.
Overall, however, for a children’s film, it hits all the major notes. Keep it musical, keep it lively, keep it cute and, you know, if you can, slip in a moral. While I doubt any kids will walk away from the film really believing that penguins engage in rap music to woo each other, or that a penguin-wide choregraphed STOMP session will change the global fishing industry, it does ground itself in enough reality to make it somewhat palatable for the adults sitting through it. And that one baby penguin, rapping not to push him because he’s “close to the edge” is by far one of the cutest moments in cinemas this year.