Monday 28 November 2011

From the archive: "Happy Feet"

Happy Feet is just too weird. Last year's documentary March of the Penguins was nice enough, and the penguins were by far the best characters in Madagascar, but did we really need a full-length pixellated musical centred around the exploits of aptenodytes forsteri? It's as though the filmmakers had fed a computer with instructions to churn out The Cutest Film Ever Made, its workings revealed thus: What could be cuter than ickle baby penguins? Ickle baby penguins SINGING! What could be cuter than that? Ickle baby penguins that sing AND TAP DANCE! The script of Happy Feet would appear to be written in pink felt-tip pen, with lots of OMG!!!s in the margins and spangly stars dotting all the "i"s.

The director, George Miller, turned a similarly bizarre concept into a copper-bottomed hit a decade ago while producing the talking-pig movie Babe, its mix of animatronics and live actors possessed of enough old-fashioned charm to bring audiences wholeheartedly into its world. Second time around, the charm is kept in check by logic as fuzzy as the ickle baby penguins themselves. If you are going - as certain critics felt compelled - to quibble with the udders on the male cows in the recent Barnyard, you might want to take a moment to ponder how these penguins have gained access to a repertoire of 70s and 80s hits. (Can you pick up AM radio in the Antarctic? Do they have waterproof iPods? iCods?)

Something has to have gone amiss in character development meetings when your penguins don't know what a mechanical digger is, but have the lyrics to Sir Mix-a-Lot's "Baby Got Back" down pat. Similarly, can anyone say why this penguin community has been drawn up along such prominent racial lines, with Mexican birds operating their own chilly barrio, the only black actor in the voice cast installed in the role of a devouring leopard seal, and a Scottish penguin elder - the John Reid of penguins - blaming these dancing nancies for a shortfall in fish? The answer, perhaps, is that Happy Feet subscribes to the same brand of brash, anything-goes Antipodean kitsch as was peddled in Moulin Rouge! (Nicole Kidman gives us another song); as musicals go, it's as many parts Ben Elton as Busby Berkeley, setting the splendour of the Aurora Australis to Queen's "Somebody to Love".

And for all the artistry evident in both the film's visual design and direction - someone's been watching the meteorological conditions described in March of the Penguins very closely, a facet that ultimately distinguishes this from its computer-generated predecessors - Happy Feet is still overly reliant on the big, noisy, non-narrative set-pieces (avalanches, chases) that powered The Ant Bully, The Wild and Hoodwinked!. It arrives belatedly, and not altogether convincingly, at its eco-friendly storyline, and the penguins, who mostly appear alike, look suspiciously easy to replicate with the appropriate processing chip. Pingu can sleep easy in his igloo tonight.

(December 2006)

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