The surprise about Happy Feet is the name of the creative talent behind it none other than Australian director George Miller, the man responsible for the Mad Max trilogy Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985). Certainly, George Millers career has been uneven since the days of the Mad Max films. He was taken to Hollywood to direct one of the episodes (the best) of Twilight Zone The Movie (1983) then had a reasonable success with The Witches of Eastwick (1987) but quit Hollywood after a falling out with the producers of that film. Millers output throughout the 1990s was sporadic at best he produced Philip Noyces thriller Dead Calm (1989) and the tv mini-series Bangkok Hilton (1989), both of which introduced Nicole Kidman to the world; had a big success as the producer of the talking animals film Babe (1995), directed its less successful sequel Babe: Pig in the City (1998); and only directed one other film, the true-life medical miracle cure search film Lorenzos Oil (1992). More than anything, it feels that George Miller was better known throughout the 1990s and 2000s for the films he didnt direct than those he did Contact (1997), which he ended up being fired from, the perpetually announced fourth Mad Max film that eventually emerged as Mad Max: Fury Road (2015) after thirty years, the planned Justice League: Mortal and an adaptation of The Odyssey. It has not been since The Witches of Eastwick that George Miller has had a film of notice, which is a shame as he has always been a director of great untapped worth in this critics opinion. It is good to see Miller back in the directors chair and having a film that is a hit again. Although, one would find it hard to think of a film more far removed from the violent, revved-up comic-book action world of the Mad Max series than Happy Feet an animated talking animals film pitched to family audiences.
Happy Feet has one of the most off the wall premises of any film of recent note a talking animals film about tap-dancing penguins. It is almost as though Happy Feet has been conceived following a double-bill viewing of the hit documentary March of the Penguins (2005) and Billy Elliott (2000) about an outsider in a small community finding acceptance through his ability to dance. The penguins prove absolutely adorable. It is especially saddening watching the poor downtrodden Mumbles rejection from the community, which George Miller plays for all the expected heartstrings. Much of the show is stolen by a chorus of manic Latino penguins, led by Robin Williams back in good old Robin Williams motormouth comic mode. There is some wonderfully high energy malarkey where George Millers animation camera skates around the icecaps with the penguins diving en masse or being pursued by whales and walruses. Miller has an amazing voice cast and manages to squeeze in just about every single actor in the Australian Screen Actors Guild, excepting perhaps Naomi Watts and Bryan Brown. (Even the late Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin is there in what was his last screen appearance).
While the first half of Happy Feet is in the mode of a standard talking animals animated film with all the expected characters the misunderstood outsider forced out from his home because nobody understands his unique talent, the love interest, the loopy guru and so on and plays on the standard emotional ploys of this type of film, the second half becomes a different film altogether. Here the talking animal fun and silliness is put aside and the film develops a more sombre environmentalist message about endangered ecosystems and in particular warnings over the fragility of the Antarctic biosphere. The script has the clever idea of interpreting the penguins encounters with human civilisation as an analogue for alien abduction. It makes for an appealingly intelligent metaphor a penguin with a tracking tag on its leg is seen as an abductee; the remains of a mining base as alien artefacts; and, in one scene, the image of an icebreaker moving through the fog becomes something akin to the mothership of lights from Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). There is a completely lovely scene where Mumble is placed in a zoo and sees himself surrounded by a wall of human faces (which all come with an extraordinary degree of photographic realism).
This is a film where the music supervisor is almost as much a star of the show as the animation and characters. Happy Feet is not unlike the also Australian-made Moulin Rouge (2001), which conducted some amazingly inventive medleys that reworked popular songs. Unlike most other films that quote or have popular songs on the soundtrack, this aspect is cleverly integrated into the plot. Where in most other films the use of pop songs is simply filmmakers lazily reaching for familiar cultural cues, Happy Feet shows how such a thing can be conducted with charm.