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HAPPY FEET – John Powell

November 17, 2006 Leave a comment Go to comments

Original Review by Clark Douglas

Australian film maker George Miller has never failed to impress me. His films are somewhat few and far between, but they’re all so brilliant. The “Mad Max” trilogy set the standard for post-apocalyptic thrillers. The “Babe” films are the best family movies of the past decade. “The Witches of Eastwick” is a wickedly funny comedy, “Lorenzo’s Oil” is a tremendously moving medical drama. His segment of the “Twilight Zone” movie blew away those made by Joe Dante, Steven Spielberg, and John Landis. He’s found amazing success in every genre he’s touched, so I was greatly anticipating “Happy Feet”, his first attempt at making an animated film. It is a success, but perhaps not quite the masterpiece I expected.

As you know from watching the trailers, the film is about a little emperor penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood) who can’t sing. You wouldn’t that’s important, but the penguins find their mate by singing their “heart song”, which is generally any top forty hit of the past fifty years or so. However, Mumble sure can tap dance. The other penguins think this is strange and weird, so Mumble becomes something of an outcast, despite support from his mother (Nicole Kidman) and a nice penguin girl named Gloria (Britney Murphy). Eventually, the penguin’s religious leaders (led by Hugo Weaving) decide that the lack of fish is being caused by this evil dancing penguin in their midst. So they banish him.

Determined to prove that he’s not the cause of the problem, Mumble wanders off and meets some macaroni penguins with Mexican accents, led by Ramon (Robin Williams). With the aid of his new friends, Mumble seeks the advice of a guru named Lovelace (a nice reference for the innumerable “Deep Throat” fans in the audience), who is also voiced by Williams. He finds that aliens (humans) have been taking the fish from the ocean, and quickly goes back to his home, where he participates in the grand finale to his romantic subplot (no, not that, it’s rated PG). But this is only the halfway point. It’s about here that the movie accomplishes the most and the least.

The second half of the film contains some surprising elements, some unique animation ideas, and some amazing images. To that degree, it’s classic Miller, achieving the same kind of jaw-dropping wonder as “Babe: Pig in the City”. It’s the plot that causes the problems. Not only is the story development here utterly ridiculous, but it jumps from one place to another without showing us we got there. The movie ends abruptly and without much warning. The whole finale an extremely bizarre, hypnotic, and oddly unsatisfying experience.

So, “Happy Feet” is a bit bewildering, both in terms of message and presentation, but it still has enough to offer to warrant a recommendation. The animation is simply dazzling, perhaps the best I’ve seen so far. The voices are all well cast, and Robin Williams is finally funny again, particularly as Ramon. Also, if you ever wanted to hear what Hugh Jackman impersonating Elvis Presley would sound like, look no further than “Happy Feet”. As a side note, did you know that you have to get permission from the Elvis Presley foundation to do an Elvis Presley impersonation? At least that’s what the end credits inform us.

Composer, arranger, and general overseer of all things musical for “Happy Feet” is John Powell, who has been working on the film to some degree for the last four years. Powell’s role as song arranger comes to the fore in the first half of the film. The song album currently in stores is hardly a complete representation of Powell’s work here, there are DOZENS of songs heard in brief bits and pieces, most of them arranged by Powell. Powell slides effortlessly from pop/rock to R&B to hip-hop to Beach Boys to Queen to Prince to Elvis without missing a beat, slipping in various bits of score or song instrumentals in the fragments where no one is singing. I’m sure this would all sound a bit messy heard in order on album, but as a match for the visuals, it’s superb. The second half of the film allows Powell’s original score to shine, which features a couple of epic themes for orchestra and choir.

I’ve found Powell to be a remarkably original musical voice in the past few years, so it comes as a bit of a surprise that one of his action themes sounds very much like something Hans Zimmer would write. This doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, it’s a fine theme, it just seems like there’s more Zimmer than Powell there. Meanwhile, a vaguely Middle Eastern melody makes a very strong impression in several sweeping statements throughout the film. It’s a particularly enjoyable effort, and I look forward to the score album coming out in December. It’ll be interesting to hear how the album is arranged, with so many portions of score weaving in and out of songs. Sadly, the end credits devote all of their 10-12 minutes to songs Powell wasn’t even involved with (including an original number by Prince).

Fans of George Miller will probably agree with me that “Happy Feet” is the least of his efforts, but it’s still a few steps of head of most of the animated films this year (“Cars” and “Monster House” being the exceptions). Don’t expect a masterpiece, but if a lot of great music, amazing images, and humorous moments are worth your eight bucks, give this one a look. Recommended.

Rating: ****

Track Listing:

  • The Huddle (2:22)
  • The Eggs Hatch (0:39)
  • Birth of Mumble (1:43)
  • Wives Ho! (4:07)
  • Singing Lessons (2:18)
  • The Skua Birds (2:30)
  • In My Room (1:22)
  • Graduation (1:35)
  • Fish (1:42)
  • Leopard Seal (3:01)
  • Adelieland (3:02)
  • Bob’s Led (1:33)
  • Finding Aliens (1:47)
  • Lovelace’s Pile (3:03)
  • If I Could Sing (0:45)
  • Exile (2:18)
  • The Leader of the Pack (1:25)
  • Finding Lovelace (2:39)
  • Gloria Joins (3:04)
  • The Hill (1:21)
  • Fun Food Storm (5:19)
  • Killer Whales (2:52)
  • The Alien Ships (4:46)
  • In the Zoo (3:20)
  • First Contact (1:46)
  • Mumble Returns (1:34)
  • Tap Versus Chant (2:56)
  • The Helicopter (0:53)
  • Communication (1:58)

Atlantic/WEA 94646 (2006)

Running Time: 67 minutes 40 seconds

Music composed by John Powell. Conducted by David Stanhope and Brett Weymark. Orchestrations by John Ashton Thomas and Jessica Wells. Recorded and mixed by Shawn Murphy. Edited by Tom Carlson, Simon Leadley and Tim Ryan. Album produced by John Powell.

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