There has been no shortage in recent months of family films chronicling the misadventures of quirky, cuddly animals. “Happy Feet” is a cut above them all. It is a work of art, an animated movie of rare depth that combines digital wizardry with a thoughtful, thought-provoking story. It doesn’t talk down to the children who comprise the bulk of its target audience. It challenges them with a substantive plea for environmental awareness, framed within the context of a bubbly musical comedy.
Anyone expecting the standard litany of pop-culture references and hokey one-liners will not find them here. Yes, “Happy Feet” is loaded with song-and-dance numbers inspired by Prince, DMX and Elvis, but they’re rarely intrusive — in fact, they prove an integral part of the story. Mumble (Elijah Wood) is a young Emperor penguin who can’t carry a tune. That’s a problem, because singing is an importantpart of the penguin mating ritual. Mumble’s parents fear he will spend his days alone.
It’s a legitimate concern. Mumble is friendly and fearless, but he remains an outcast. He tries to win over Gloria (Brittany Murphy) with his furious tap-dancing — hence his nickname, “Happy Feet” — but the other penguins regard his fancy footwork with a mix of curiosity and scorn. Soon enough, he settles on a different way to make an impression. Thanks to the “aliens” — human industrialists who are polluting the waters surrounding Antarctica and scooping up the fish that represent a vital source of food — the penguins are slowly going hungry. Mumble decides to track down the source of the problem.
As much as “Happy Feet” tells the familiar story of a well-meaning outsider who must fight for acceptance, it is, in its own way, as powerful an appeal for environmental responsibility as “An Inconvenient Truth.” Everywhere Mumble goes, there is evidence of pollution — garbage dumped in the sea, a plastic six-pack casing choking the life out of one particularly unlucky penguin. Worse yet, massive fishing liners are corrupting the balance of nature, endangering all the creatures that make Antarctica their home. When Mumble demands to know why, there is no good answer.
Directed and co-written by George Miller, whose “Babe 2: Pig in the City” stands as one of the finer films in recent memory, “Happy Feet” ultimately takes an optimistic tone, hinting that the plight of the penguins is hardly a lost cause. Still, it raises hard questions, not just about the environment but also about the ethical treatment of animals. When so many animated features seem content to rely on little more than the strength of their technical proficiency, it’s refreshing to find one with the substance to match its visual style.
Happy Feet ???½
Starring The Voices of Robin Williams, Nicole Kidman, Elijah Wood, Hugh Jackman and Brittany Murphy
Written by Warren Coleman, John Collee, George Miller and Judy Morris
Directed by George Miller
Running time 1 hour, 38 minutes