Call me old school, but I like my children's films to actually be written for children. With the glut of animated films flooding the kiddie film market, it seems that studios -- and the people they hire to write the scripts for them -- are convinced that the only way to get parents to take their tykes to the theater to see a kids' movie is to fill them to overflow with adult references, and Happy Feet is the latest offender. The film opens with a female penguin, Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman), swaying seductively through a crowd of male penguins. The female is drawn with an inflated chest, presumably to simulate a large bosom. Real female Empire Penguins don't have boobies, of course, but I suppose the filmmakers thought that real men can't manage to sit through a 90-minute film with their kids without some simulated penguin cleavage to keep their attention. Norma Jean moves through the males, singing, until her attention is caught by Memphis (Hugh Jackman), who channels Elvis and says things like, "Whoa, Mama" a lot. A lot of people are going to rave about the film's soundtrack; personally, I was relatively shocked at some of the musical choices for a film targeted at young kids: Prince's "Kiss," Gia Farrell's "Hit Me Up," even snippets of "Let's Talk About Sex" (lyrics slightly altered to "Let's talk about eggs baaaay-beee" -- still pretty inappropriate for a film aimed at little kids -- and Boyz II Men's "I'll Make Love to You." Once we get past the references to penguin sex (there are only male-female pairings, none of those pesky gay penguins running around here), we get to the part of the movie that looks promising: Little Mumbles (Elijah Wood, whose voice work is one of the film's high points), the baby penguin of Norma Jean and Memphis, is born, and he's as cute and fluffy a baby penguin as you could hope for.
In the world of the penguins, they find their mates by singing their "heartsong." Mumbles, unfortunately, has no heartsong -- the poor kid can't carry a tune to save his life. What he can do is tap dance, but tap dancing isn't exactly a valued skill in a culture where penguins are expected to stand still and sing. Before you can say, "Hey, this is kinda like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," Mumbles is banished from all the penguin games and mocked for his difference by his fellow flightless birds. Just like in Rudolph, there's a girl, Gloria (Brittany Murphy) who likes Mumbles in spite of his difference, and of course, her parents don't want her to have anything to do with the "bad egg."
At graduation, poor Mumbles sits on the ice alone, watching the other penguins party the night away as his crush, Gloria sings to all the other boys. After a scary encounter with a sea lion (warning to parents: this scene is pretty intense for younger kids -- this is not your friendly, happy sea lion, but a vicious, scary predator seen from the perspective of the prey), Mumbles ends up on the other side of town, where he meets the "Amigos" -- five Adelie penguins. And here's where we start to digress from a cute story about not fitting in, into the heavy-handed "message" portion of the proceedings. The Amigos, you see, live on the wrong side of the tracks, where instead of singing to find a mate, they build nests of rocks and are into rhythm. All the penguins here on the wrong side of the tracks, naturally, speak with Latino accents, because of course if they're on the wrong side of the tracks, they must be minorities right? Mumbles, in spite of his height, fits right in with his new friends, who accept him as he is.
The rest of the film digresses from the mildly amusing to the mildly ridiculous: Mumbles returns home, with his new amigos backing him up, to try to woo Gloria; he ends up getting all the penguin youths to tap dance in unison, much to the dismay of their heavy-handed elders, who are portrayed as religiously intolerant stalwarts of tradition who will not allow any divergence from the sameness with which the tribe lives their lives. The elders banish Mumbles, who they consider dangerous to the tribe because of his difference. They insist that the shortage of fish being faced by the penguins is all the fault of poor Mumbles, whose dancing apparently has displeased their god. Mumbles refuses to change who he is and leaves, vowing to find the source of the famine and bring back the fish.
From there we move into the environmental sequence, wherein we learn that humans are polluting pigs who hog all the fish and build nasty oil refineries that pollute the environment (not that that's not true or anything, but I've already seen An Inconvenient Truth -- I don't need it with my cartoon penguins). The final sequence is mind-numbingly silly and simplistic, even for a kids' film: Penguins tap dance in unison, which somehow gives us humans a message about what we're doing to their environment, leading -- in a span of about five minutes -- to world debate, global environmental change, and heck, maybe even world peace. I'm surprised they didn't end it with the whole world holding hands and singing "Kumbayah" while the penguins tap-danced in unison with Al Gore.
The biggest problem Happy Feet has is that it wants to capitalize on the surprising success of last year's Oscar-winning documentary, March of the Penguins, but it overlooks that it wasn't just cute penguins that made that film such a success, it was good storytelling. March of the Penguins told a simple story of survival under harsh conditions without proselytizing. Happy Feet tries to cram way too many Important Messages down the throats of the small fry and their adults. Acceptance of someone with a difference is, in and of itself, a noble message to teach the kidlets; give us that and lose the preachiness. Director George Miller did a much better job of tight, simple storytelling with the screenplay he co-wrote for Babe, and the directing he did with its follow-up, Babe: Pig in the City, both of which were charming without being overly preachy.
Interestingly, I've already seen some folks online ragging on the film for having a "homosexual agenda," for portraying the Empire penguin leaders as intolerant religious bigots, and for sending the message that it's okay for Mumble to be different and not fit in, even if the other penguins feel he's endangering their tribe. Whereas the religious right came out in full force to support March of the Penguins, I wouldn't be shocked to see exactly the opposite with Happy Feet. When you try to cram this many moral messages into one kiddie flick, you're bound to offend all kinds of folks for all kinds of reasons. I didn't find the film offensive, myself -- it's just so heavy-handed with all the preaching that it loses whatever charm it gained from the cute animation and dance numbers. The penguins are cute and the animation is nicely done, but overall, that's just not enough to balance the scale.