CG movies take years to produce, so there’s no question that George Miller’s “Happy Feet” was in the works long before Luc Jacquet’s “La Marche de l’Empereur” became Warner Independent’s smash hit “March of the Penguins”.
What’s remarkable, though, is how similar the computer-animated movie is to the original French version of the documentary — at least at first.
The original cut of “Marche”, for instance, had no narration. The penguins spoke directly to one another, their voices supplied by the French actors Charles Berling and Rohmane Bohringer. Their courtship was structured as a series of poetry exchanges.
The penguins of “Happy Feet” court through rhyme, too, though it’s not quite as high-minded a process: These birds sing pop songs to one another, in the style of “Moulin Rouge”, belting out tracks like Prince’s “Kiss” or Elvis’ “Teddy Bear” to the accompaniment of an invisible orchestra.
Each penguin has a specific “heart song” that he or she must find in order to procure a mate; Miller, naturally, has decided to tell the story of the one penguin who is different. Unable to sing, little Mumble communicates his heart song through the magic of tap dancing .. and his special difference will ultimately, and quite literally, change the world.
Whether or not you buy into “Happy Feet” will probably depend on how willing you are to follow Miller on his vision quest. Strictly on the evidence of “Babe: Pig in the City”, I was willing to follow him pretty far — for my money, it’s the best fairy-tale movie produced in the English language — but there are so many different tones and ideas fighting for screen time here that the movie becomes an exhausting mess long before it reaches its ridiculous finale … where Mumble, having been exiled from his home by the troop elders whose religious fundamentalism has led them to conclude that his tap dancing is an “abomination” in the eyes of their god, returns triumphant with a beeping web of circuitry affixed to his back.
I thought he’d come home as a suicide bomber.
Of course, you don’t get that kind of deeper meaning in a movie where Robin Williams voices two ethnic sidekicks, but Miller’s staging made it seem possible. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, but I will say that “Happy Feet” is one of the year’s strangest, and most personal, pictures. For what that’s worth.
Oh, and “Let’s Go to Prison” sucks.