Like the nuke-power concerns of The China Syndrome coinciding with the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island, the overfishing issue of the computer-animated Happy Feet hits the zeitgeist together with a widely reported study by Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia that computer-models we've only 42 years of ocean-fish left. (Optimists say we'll just turn to farmed fish, which sort of avoids the whole ocean-ecosystem food-chain-collapse thing.) This music-filled adventure-romance starring penguins--talk about tapping your zeitgeist--remains exhilarating in the face of that über-serious scenario. But it's good to remember that though director and co-writer George Miller gave us the Pollyanna-piggy of Babe, he also painted us the apocalyptic Road Warrior.
Here he gives us not only the march of the penguins but the soul, R&B, progressive rock and disco of the penguins. Emperors vocalize with distinct calls that mating couples recognize as each other's; the movie stretches that to "heartsongs" that each must sing in order to find a mate. We meet the dulcet, Marilyn Monroe-breathy Norma Jean (voiced amazingly by Nicole Kidman) singing her little heartsong out to attract Memphis (Hugh Jackman), who talks like Elvis, thank you very much. They soon have a son, Mumble (E.G. Daily as a hatchling, Elijah Wood when older), who, tragically, sings like a teamster. Mumble can, however, tap dance (courtesy of motion-capture choreographer Savion Glover), though in Emperor penguin terms, that's like being good at chess instead of sports. Worse, even: As puritanical leader Noah (Hugo Weaving) intones with ice and brimstone, Mumble's Footloose ways threaten rookery unity. And besides, there's almost no fish anymore and ya gotta blame someone.
Ostracized, Mumble leaves behind his girl-penguin crush, Gloria (Brittany Murphy), and eventually befriends a clutch of Latino-accented Rockhopper penguins led by Ramon (Robin Williams). Having heard a tagged seabird (Anthony LaPaglia) speak of "alien abduction," Mumble begins to believe these "aliens" might hold the key to why fish have become so scarce. Together with an evangelical faux guru (also Williams), the intrepid birds waddle their way past voracious whales and patronizing elephant seals (one voiced by the late Steve Irwin) to reach what looks like a dead-on recreation of Grytviken, the South Atlantic island burial place of explorer Ernest Shackleton, right down to its coastline and abandoned whale-processing plant. And Mumble's rite of passage still has several thousand (briskly and efficiently covered) miles left to go.
As the Emperor penguins' new groove, following everything from an Oscar-winning documentary to the psycho-penguins of Madagascar, this breathtakingly beautiful piece of animation has some exhilarating set-pieces, particularly a snowboard/roller-coaster/luge sequence, and the CGI technique is so off the chart that you may question if the live-action humans in one sequence are real. (They are.) If this isn't the last word in animated penguin movies, it's certainly the penguin-ultimate. Not a musical per se in that you only get existing-song snippets, primarily for mood, it does offer inspired choices (a heartbreaking "In My Room," a terribly haunting "Leader of the Pack") along with head-scratchers: The climactic spirit of two souls in love is "Boogie Wonderland"? A kids' movie with "Kiss" by Prince ("I just need your body, baby, from dusk till dawn")? And could Warner Bros. really not secure the rights to either Laura Branigan's or Van Morrison's "Gloria"?