As addictive as any street drug, the sight of arctic birds walking upright has recently proven highly intoxicating to moviegoers. First there was last year's March of the Penguins, a documentary about the Herculean pluck of emperor penguins, whose ordeals braving frigid conditions and seal attacks made them the can-do action heroes of 2005.
Forever improving on nature, Hollywood offers an animated homage to the world's most captivating bird, Happy Feet. In matters of visual veracity, the makers of Happy Feet are scrupulously accurate, right down to the goobers caking the rheumy eyeballs of the elephant seals. They do, however, take certain liberties with other features of penguin life. These emperor penguins are "American Idol"-style crooners who sing a groovy repertoire including Prince and Stevie Wonder and tap-dance (thanks to the film's hoofing source Savion Glover) in this all-bird musical.
The exception to the penguin rule of exceptional singing ability is young Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), who has a rotten singing voice but can dance like there's no tomorrow. Mumbo's fondest desire in Happy Feet is to hook up with the gorgeous girl penguin Gloria (Brittany Murphy), though that quest eventually takes a backseat to his mission to find out why his community's fish supply has dried up.
Like so much of American life, Happy Feet is equal parts fun and finger-pointing, a schizophrenia that might be expected from a director, George Miller, whose oeuvre encompasses the Mad Max trilogy and Babe: Pig in the City.
A pleasingly energetic comedy-romance, Happy Feet's second half takes an unexpectedly eerie turn as Mumble discovers life beyond Antarctica in a segment with the surreal, soulless touches of The Truman Show. Those gothic undertones create a confusing, but not uninteresting, mix of singing and dancing escapist entertainment and doomsaying cautionary tale.
The environmental finger-waving might strike some as especially rich, delivered as it is by an estimated $85 million film messenger that preaches conservation while launching a million ancillary plastic toys. But in this day and age, when so few bother to craft thoughtful entertainment for children, at least Happy Feet tries.
Happy Feet. 3 stars. Directed by George Miller. Stars Robin Williams, Hugh Jackman, Elijah Wood, Nicole Kidman, Brittany Murphy. Rated PG. Opens Fri., Nov. 17. At area theaters.