In the frozen land of the emperor penguin, you’re nobody without a good heartsong—a personal song that shows your feelings, gives you identity and wins you a mate. It’s always been that way. And it’s exactly what brings Norma Jean and Memphis together and leads them to give birth to a cute, blue-eyed little guy they call Mumble.
But there’s a problem. Against all penguin logic, their little fuzzball child can’t carry a tune in a bucket. And he has these “hippity-hoppity” dancing feet that the other folks find most troubling. Even Mumble’s dad says, “It just ain’t penguin.” Maybe, with time he hopes, the boy will shape up and fly, er, sing, right.
What begins as a peculiar little habit, however, grows into a big problem when the elders of the community blame Mumble for this year’s shortage of fish. They reason that the outlandish tap dancer must have offended the great penguin spirit and they order him to desist or disappear. Mumble determines to stay true to who he is and sets off to find out what could be happening to all the fish. Helping him along the way are a wisecracking gaggle of diminutive Adélie penguins called the Amigos who think Mumble’s moves are “so accidentally cool.”
After Mumble’s parents find their way to each other through song, the narrator says, “The song became love and love became the egg.” Then, with the arrival of winter all the female penguins trek away to fish, leaving the men to protect the eggs. In a segment mirroring the harrowing winter scenes of the documentary March of the Penguins, Happy Feet shows the sacrifice that the males make, pressed together to give the eggs warmth and shielding each other from the blizzard of ice and snow (“Each must take his turn against the cold”).
Later, when Mumble meets the Adélie penguins, they are instantly open to him and welcome him into their number. Even his dancing, disturbing to emperor penguins, is seen as something new that they want to learn. They also help him laugh in the face of his fears (in the form of the leopard seal). Mumble wishes he were as confident as his little hombres, but one of them, Ramon, assures him, “Except for me, you got the most charisma of anybody.”
The Amigos put their money where their beaks are by sticking by their soft-shoe buddy, even when it means following him into danger. When the emperor flock turns Mumble out, the Amigos take his side and say, “We sing the song of our only true friend, Mumble. You are a bunch of tiny people!”
Memphis dropped Mumble into the cold when he was just an egg and blames himself for the boy’s slow development and subsequent tap-dancing troubles. But he still tries his best to teach and motivate his son, and points out that triumph “starts out with try and ends with oomph.” Conversely, from the moment Norma Jean lays eyes on him, she adores her son and doesn’t think his dancing is a problem at all. She, like his Adélie friends, defends him repeatedly (even to Memphis). Gloria, Mumble’s good childhood friend and adolescent love interest stands by her man, too. And she’s willing to follow him on his journey. (But Mumble knows how dangerous it’ll be and drives her away.)
Mildly disparaging remarks about the Adélie “foreigners” are used as a starting point to teach us that just because customs are different around the world, we should neither fear nor reject other people who talk or look different than us.
As the narrator describes the penguin community, he points out that they believe themselves to be blessed by “Guin” (showing us a brief image of a large overseeing penguin figure). During the freezing winter storm the elders call out to the males trying to protect their eggs: “Praise the great one who puts a song in our hearts and fish in our bellies.” And later, as the elders blame Mumble’s dancing for the lack of fish, they say: “You offended the great Guin. He alone gives and takes away.”
Ultimately, the movie casts a dubious eye upon the elders and their belief system. To drive home the point for young minds, one of the characters calls them “daffy old fools.” Of course their god is not the God, but many of the scenes devoted to the penguins’ religiosity—when thought of as allegory—feel tinged with antagonism toward Christianity, specifically, and religion in general.
At one point, Mumble goes to a local guru/wise man named Lovelace looking for answers. Lovelace is given a great deal of respect in the community because of a plastic six-pack ring that has gotten stuck around his neck like a necklace talisman. He claims to have received it from mystic beings who also send him words of wisdom.
References are made to the attraction between the male and female penguins during mating season. For example, the movie starts by introducing us to Mumble’s soon-to-be parents. Norma Jean—a Marilyn Monroe-like penguin beauty—wiggles and sings a breathy rendition of the Prince song Kiss (“You don’t have to be rich to turn me on/I just need your body, baby/From dusk till dawn”). Her vocalizing draws a crowd of male admirers, but she only finds her match in the swivel-hipped Memphis and his Elvis croon. Elsewhere, a rendition of the Boys II Men song “I’ll Make Love to You” includes the line, “I’ll make love to you/Like you want me to.”
The Amigos quip quite frequently about their ability to attract the girls (“You like to party? We practically own the action around here”). Their macho mannerisms include backside slaps and pelvic thrusts. Later, Lovelace ends his question/answer session by sending all the gatherers away with, “Go forth and multiply.” He then exits with a group of females bidding them to join him on his “couch of perpetual indulgence.”
From a young age, Mumble finds himself ostracized because he’s different. So he goes off by himself to dance. On one such occasion he comes face to face with several predatory brown skuas looking for a snack. They attack him with snapping beaks and he barely escapes by falling into a crack in the ice. Mumble is also attacked by a leopard seal and killer whales. Both of these assaults are very intense with sharp flashing teeth (ripping tail feathers out in one case) and scary looking enemies.
Mumble and his friends accidentally cause a snowy mountainside avalanche that they’re barely able to escape. As they crash into the water below, a large tank-treaded machine is pushed into the water, too.
“Gosh” and “darn” are as strong as the language gets, but both are repeated several times. Traded insults include “blubber butt,” “lard face,” “fatty,” “fool,” “loser” and “idiot.” A male says to Gloria, “Don’t be so snooty, booty.” Mumble is taunted with, “Show me those flipping feet.”
The Amigos slap their backsides and yell “kiss it” as a taunt to a predator, and they toss around a couple of gas gags. Remarks are made about “pee” and avoiding “yellow snow.” Although Mumble tries to keep his dancing under wraps (at his dad’s request), he does end up defying the authority of the elders and his father to follow his tapping tootsies. A vague reference about ancient penguins forsaking their wings in favor of flippers gives a nod to evolution.
Happy Feet, shot with a true director’s eye for camera movement, scene composition and detail (the little Mumble wears 6 million feathers and his dance steps are all motion captured from virtuoso tap-dancer Savion Glover), gives us a digital Antarctica that’s both bone-chilling and beautiful. It also boogies down a path that kids’ movies have just about worn down into a rut: Be true to yourself. Gratifyingly, although that theme has been hijacked in recent years by (anti)social agendas, the film doesn’t appear to boast any banner other than, “Friendship and love can overcome any difference.”
OK. It does hoist one other banner. The cute little penguins (humanized with romantic desires, teen angst and even a kind of religion) are being threatened by a horrible and mysterious alien. And that evil entity is … us. If only mankind would go away, they seem to be saying, then all the creatures of the world could be happy and live in harmony. Of course the film’s creators overlook the fact that if man went away then there wouldn’t be anyone around to anthropomorphize all that is cute and cuddly anymore. How would the penguins tap-dance then?
So, what’s on the dance card for families who’re itching to move their feet toward the local cineplex? A pouty Prince song, “perpetual indulgence,” a bit of defiant behavior, oddly unpleasant interjections of spiritualism, Footloose-style loosen-up-you-old-fuddy-duddy “moralizing,” and a few bodily function jokes. But also images of sacrificial love, friendship, courage and loyalty. Not to mention (again) the idea that nobody should be shunned just because he likes to dance and you like to sing.
After spending more than two decades touring, directing, writing and producing for Christian theater and radio (most recently for Adventures in Odyssey, which he still contributes to), Bob joined the Plugged In staff to help us focus more heavily on video games. He is also one of our primary movie reviewers.