Judging by the barrage of TV commercials, print ads and Web leaks about “Happy Feet,” the latest animated film from Warner Bros., the movie looks like a romp through Antarctica with a lovable tap-dancing penguin — almost like an upbeat counterpart to “March of the Penguins” for children. Or a funnier, more politically correct version of “The Ugly Duckling.”
The movie, indeed, begins that way, when penguin-parents Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) beget the adorable, happy-footed Mumble (Elijah Wood). (Despite being computer-generated, Mumble and the other baby penguins are cuddly and fuzzy enough to birdnap — seriously.)
As an emperor penguin, Mumble is expected to develop his own unique mating song, the heartsong. It’s something his beautiful buddy Gloria (Brittany Murphy, who actually has some pipes in her) has no problem with, but Mumble’s vocal skills resemble those of a dying swan.
He’s got hoofing skills instead. In fact, he’s got the hoofing superiority of Tony Award-winning choreographer Savion Glover (“Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk”), who performs his taps.
Even Mr. Glover’s dazzling rapid fire doesn’t wow Mumble’s parents and fellow penguin community. (Are they hearing the same thing as the audience? This stuff is incredible.)
But, as Memphis says, “It just ain’t penguin.”
Eventually, the elders banish Mumble from the colony.
He catches the slow iceberg drift to Adelie Land, a place inhabited by rockhopper penguins and, more specifically, a boisterous gang of penguin homeboys led by Ramon (Robin Williams). At their urging, Mumble pays a visit to a Barry White-meets-Don King-style guru, Lovelace (also Robin Williams), but even he doesn’t have any real advice for the tap dance kid.
Mumble sure has a lot of fun with the so-called Adelie Amigos — as will theatergoers. However, he needs to gain acceptance at home and to win the woman he loves, Gloria.
What better way than by … conquering the evil powers stealing all the colony’s fish?
Out of nowhere, “Happy Feet” drops a conservationist anchor about preserving penguin habitat, and the movie starts to feel heavy, without having any real weight to it. The dancing-penguin-saves-the-world sermon is a pronounced shift in tenor that feels abrupt to this adult, although children may love the animal star enough to follow him wherever he goes.
Despite the narrative break — along with Miss Kidman’s cloyingly breathy baby voice and the ugliest, scariest sea lions you’ve ever seen (yikes) — “Happy Feet” has many redeeming qualities. Among them: lovable baby penguins, tap dancing wonders, breathtaking scenery, fun and relatively nonstop musical accompaniment and Mr. Williams’ zany humor.
Its sweetest surprise, though, is a Steve Irwin cameo that has the recently deceased animal wrangler performing the voice of a homely elephant seal. Now that’s animation magic.
TITLE: “Happy Feet”
RATING: PG (some rude humor and mild peril involving hungry sea lions)
CREDITS: Directed by George Miller. Screenplay by George Miller, John Collee, Judy Morris and Warren Coleman.
RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes
WEB SITE: www2.warnerbros.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS