Happy Feet

Australians! Is there anything they can’t do? “Happy Feet” has an Australian director and writers, several Aussie cast members, and a peppy, upbeat, wacky sensibility that is distinctive of comedies from Down Under. It’s about penguins who sing, and one penguin who dances. KOOKY!

This surreal, toe-tappin’ animated musical combines “March of the Penguins” zoological trivia (the males care for the eggs!) with “Moulin Rouge”-style integration of pop songs (they sing while they’re doing it!). Memphis (voice of Hugh Jackman) and Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) are an emperor penguin couple who, like most of their kind, express themselves through song. Not original Broadway-style tunes, but songs you’ve heard before, like Prince’s “Kiss” and Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel.” Their voices are beautiful, and they harmonize like they were made for each other.

Along comes their adorable hatchling, Mumble (voiced in childhood by Elizabeth Daily and in adolescence by Elijah Wood), who can’t carry a tune to save his life. While the other children are learning to find their “heart songs,” their true inner singing voices, Mumble can only squawk out an earnest but ugly honk.

Even more embarrassing: Mumble is an extraordinarily good tap-dancer, something none of his fellow ‘guins are good at, nor even approve of it. “A pagan display!” is what one of the elders calls it. If being unable to sing weren’t enough to make him a misfit, being a feathered version of Savion Glover does the trick.

Mumble leaves his colony, with his father embarrassed (and feeling guilty for dropping the egg while Mumble was incubating) and his mother still defending him. After some wandering, Mumble finds a place where the penguins are smaller than him and speak, inexplicably, with Hispanic accents. The five pals he runs into first (led by Robin Williams, doing that flamboyant Puerto Rican thing he does) find his dancing delightful and want him to teach them how it’s done.

The plot, in a screenplay written by Warren Coleman, John Collee, Judy Morris and George Miller (who’s also the director), is admirably weird and unpredictable, taking Mumble on a journey back to his own colony, into the world of humans, and back to Antarctica again. The film’s eventual “just be yourself” message is pretty standard for a kiddie flick, but everything else about it surprisingly fresh.

Miller previously produced both “Babe” movies (and directed the second) and directed the “Mad Max” films. So talking animals and hero’s journeys, he’s familiar with. The attention to detail in the animation is outstanding, with the penguins cutely anthropomorphic and the song-and-dance numbers all impeccably choreographed. The jokes are loopy, the energy is infectious, the songs are hummable. In a year that’s had a glut of animated films, it’s nice to see one so different from the norm.

B (1 hr., 38 min.; PG, mild shenanigans.)