You knew once those adorable Antarctic birds waddled off with an Oscar for March of the Penguins, an animated penguin film couldn't be far behind. Set in the South Pole, director George Miller's entertaining, if at times surprisingly dark, fable Happy Feet (Warner Bros.) centers on Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), a young emperor penguin who has rhythm in his feet but whose singing voice is painful to the ears.
Unable to carry a tune, he can't find his "heartsong," the mating call unique to each emperor penguin. In real life, the species uses squawks and warbles, but here it's a jukebox mix of hip-hop, oldies and rock. Mumble's dad, Memphis (Hugh Jackman), belts out Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" to woo wife Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman).
The odds are bleak for the misfit Mumble to ever win the affections of the much-courted Gloria (Brittany Murphy), who has the best set of pipes on the ice shelf. She thinks he's cute, but odd: He's always dancing (tap effects courtesy of Savion Glover), an eccentricity considered scandalous in penguin land.
When he tries to teach his peers some dance moves, he's banished from the flock by the self-righteous elder, Noah (Hugo Weaving), who blames him for evoking the wrath of the penguin god and causing the fish supply to dwindle.
Mumble sets out to prove Noah wrong and solve the riddle behind the food shortage. Tagging along are a quintet of smaller, party-loving Adelie penguins — the Adelie Amigos — led by Ramon (Robin Williams), who steals the show with his riotous Spanish rendition of Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
Visually, Happy Feet ranks among the best of the recent crowd of computer-animated movies, with a realism — from Mumble's fluffy feathers to the astonishing glacial backdrops — that is truly amazing. The assembled voice talent is equally terrific.
From a narrative standpoint, however, the script, which Miller co-wrote along with three others, crams too many weighty themes — bigotry, intolerance, conformity and concern for the environment — into the sweet but slender story.
Its cheery title and plush toy-ready characters don't prepare you for some ominous stretches, including a zoo scene and two intense sequences involving a ravenous leopard seal and killer whales. But don't worry, a movie named Happy Feet can't have a downer ending.
And while some parents may find the film's subtly subversive subtext troubling (the puritanical elders are portrayed as unenlightened for their religiously motivated rejection of Mumble's "lifestyle"), the broader messages of love and self-acceptance should melt most objections.
The film contains some mildly rude humor and innuendo, as well as some menace and two frightening sequences that may upset very young viewers, but is probably OK for older children. The USCCB Office for Film & Broadcasting classification is A-II — adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG — parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.