George Miller is one of the great eclectic filmmakers to emerge in the previous few decades, an Australian director (and licensed physician) who's work runs the gamut from his breakthrough in the genre-defining "Mad Max," to the emotional drama "Lorenzo's Oil" and even to the producer of both "Babe" movies (and director of the second.)
Counting "Happy Feet," it can be said that Miller has been behind three phenomenal animal-related family films that all share two common traits: That they are excellent films... and that they are stunningly bizzare in the realm of mass-market family entertainment. "Happy Feet" is, without a doubt, one of the wierdest things that is going to play at a multiplex this year. It begins by (often literally) stacking oddity upon oddity just to set up it's premise and world, and then proceeds to branch off into a quest story of straight-faced absurdity and metaphysical trippiness likely to rival anything we're soon to see from "The Fountain." The film may owe it's financial backing to the megahit "March of The Penguins," but it's closer spiritual cousins are "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" or "Watership Down."
The story plays out in Anarctica, chiefly among the massive colony of Emperor Penguins that call the vast ice-fields home. Emperor Penguins, we learn, are born with both the ability and the desire to sign pop songs to one-another, especially at mating season where the ability to blend respective "heartsongs" into a duet is paramount to hooking up. Elvis-crooning Alpha-male Memphis (Hugh Jackman) wins the heart of bombshell Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and soon enough a baby is on the way...
...but said Baby, named Mumble HappyFeet (Elijah Wood,) is born, well.. different. He can't sing, not at all, and doesn't seem to posess a "heartsong." The only way he seems comfortable, indeed a prodigy, at expressing himself is through tap-dancing. Dance, however, is apparently "not Penguin," and soon enough the Elders who reign over the religion practiced by the Penguins are declaring Mumble's fancy footwork a blasphemy against their god, The Great Guin... and possibly the cause of the increasing fish famine that has imperiled their very existance.
Mumble, however, believes there may be another cause... possibly related to the strange stories of technologically-advanced "alien invaders" who've been overfishing the Arctic waters, (guess who,) and sets out on a quest to save his people... even as the Elders continue to insist that all solutions other than increased fealty to The Great Guin will only bring further punishment. His adventure will bring him new friends, harrowing encounters with predators (including the scariest Orcas since, well... "Orca") clashes with the ideology of the Elders and even his family... and a "the HELL just happened??" third act that calls to mind nothing so much as "2001."
Here we have it, without a doubt the finest musical ever made about a Penguin battling religious intolerance and "alien" invasions with tap-dancing as his only weapon. And believe it or not, describing it that way makes "Happy Feet" sound MORE normal than it actually is. Compounding the surreality is the atypical realism of the animation; the "humanization" of the characters is very limited, making all the singing and toe-tapping look all the more outlandish coming from what are basically photo-realistic Penguins. And the musical score, often a dizzyingly-complex medley of Penguin-remixed pop-standards, is a wonder of song-choice and sound editing.
George Miller has delivered a poignant, moving and geniunely beautiful film that is also one of the most original and unusually visionary movies of 2006. Listen close: You NEED to see "Happy Feet."
FINAL RATING: 9/10