If you were to go just by the commercials, you'd think George Miller's new animated offering, Happy Feet, was one big party movie with wall-to-wall singing and dancing penguins.
What's striking when you see the full film is that Happy Feet contains a strong environmental message that would make Al Gore's heart sing. In the middle of a movie that is, in Robin Williams' words, Riverdance meets March of the Penguins, you have plot points turning on the effects of over fishing, global warming and the fragility of the food chain in Antarctica.
"You can't tell the story of penguins without dealing with the environment," Miller says. "In some sense, Happy Feet is an appeal to humans' better nature. That's what the main character, Mumbles, sets out to do. Because we're all responsible for these amazing creatures."
Mumbles (voiced by Elijah Wood) is an emperor penguin born without the ability to sing. If you were one of the millions who saw last year's documentary smash March of the Penguins, you might remember that Antarctica's emperor penguins find their mates and distinguish each other through what's called their "heartsong."
Thus, Mumbles' affliction is viewed as a problem, except by Mumbles.
Because all he wants to do is dance. (Mumbles' tap-dancing came from the filmmakers doing motion-capture work with virtuoso tap dancer Savion Glover.)
That message of the importance of individuality makes Happy Feet indistinguishable from most other family fare. But Mumbles' journey to happiness takes him to some authentically dark places, leading him to confront the actions of what he and his brethren call the "ugly penguins without feathers on their fat, flabby faces."
Happy FeetDirected by: George MillerWith the voices of: Robin Williams (Ramon/Lovelace/Cletus), Hugh Jackman (Memphis), Elijah Wood (Mumble), Nicole Kidman (Norma Jean), Brittany Murphy (Gloria), Hugo Weaving (Noah), Lombardo Boyar (Raul), Steve Irwin (Kev)Running time: 98 minutesTaiwan release: Today
Australia's Miller has been down this road before. He was one of the writers and producers of the 1995 Oscar-nominated family film, Babe, where the specter of the ax in the family-farm food chain was never far from the surface.
Miller took 1998 sequel Babe: Pig in the City a step further, moving from the gentle, pastoral charm of the original to a movie disturbing in tone, European art house in feel.
Not surprisingly, Pig in the City bombed with audiences, grossing only US$18 million in the states. (Miller calls the movie's commercial failure "self-inflicted." He delivered the film to the studio late, giving the marketing department little time to prepare audiences for the tonal shift.)
"The moral darkness of Pinocchio and Snow White are huge to me," Miller says. "Happy Feet has a lot in common with Dumbo, another one of my favorites. These dark stories help us negotiate life. They're for the adult in the child and the child in the adult."
Adds Wood: "Life isn't sanitized. I like that the movie throws in a little dark reality."
For the Antarctic penguins in Happy Feet, that reality includes ocean waters where fish aren't swimming and ice temperatures that are, relatively speaking, sweltering. One penguin, Lovelace (voiced by Williams), wears a plastic six-pack ring around his neck.
Initially, the other penguins see the ring as an exotic talisman, a sign of Lovelace's power. Then Lovelace begins to have trouble breathing, and Mumbles realizes something more sinister is at hand.
"To George's credit, it's funny and ridiculous and heartbreaking, all at the same time," says Brittany Murphy, who voices Gloria, Mumbles' singing love interest. "The message is there, but he isn't beating you over the head with it. It is unexpected, though. Most people are just expecting happy penguins."