With the advent of DVD and big screen TVs cinema attendance figures are falling, but one film genre remains buoyant - the one aimed at kids.
CGI 'toons are the name of the game these days and although expensive to produce, the profits are so huge it seems everyone's jumping on the band wagon. It's unusual for kiddie-oriented fare to deliver less than 300 million dollars at the box office, particularly if released around school holiday time. Add in a few well-known 'voices' from the Hollywood A-list, and a few adult-oriented jokes and you're guaranteed a winner, regardless of the quality of the script or the CGI, as the abysmal A Shark's Tale proved.
CGI 'toons are a God-send for lazy film companies who want to make bucketloads of cash, with box office sales just being the tip of the iceberg where profits are concerned. Tie-in merchandising is a sure-fire seller, and kids love to watch and re-watch their favourite 'toons over and over again on DVD. A successful 'toon delivers a triple-whammy, as those parents who took the family to see the film at a cinema then buy the DVD and stuffed toys and games too. All-in-all it's a wonder anybody bothers to take risks by making films that aren't 'toons these days!
Happy Feet is yet another in the 'cute animal' series of CGI films that have hit the multiplexes this year. Fortunately it's written to a higher standard than most of this fare is, and although it can get a little preachy at times, especially in its final five minutes, there's enough here to keep the most jaded parent amused. The film probably deserves an extra star just for the innovation of NOT having a series of fart jokes in it!
CGI films generally look superb on DVD, but on HD-DVD they really shine and Happy Feet is no exception - this is a stunning looking disc, and a great advert for high definition (whether you're talking the HD-DVD disc reviewed here, or the Blu-Ray version that's also available).
Mumble, voiced by Elijah Wood, is an Emperor Penguin who's a little different from the other penguins in the colony. This may or may not be down to his father accidentally dropping him while his mother was away foraging for food. In this story Emperor Penguins are generally born with a talent for singing, and the ability to compose and deliver a unique song that reflects their personality and helps attract a mate. Mumble, because of his 'disability' can't sing. He does however have a talent for tap-dancing, which the other penguins, and the Scottish Presbyterian leaders of the community in particular, find decidedly odd, if not downright abnormal.
Shunned and rejected Mumble makes friends with a group of foreign-sounding penguins, the 'Adelie Amigos', all seemingly voiced by Robin Williams, with outrageous foreign accents who love his tap-dancing in a way that his own breed can't. Mumble takes it upon himself to try and meet 'the aliens' who appear to have abducted the all-knowing Rockhopper penguin (again voiced by Williams) and who, he feels, may have some answers as to why the ice is melting and his own breed are struggling to survive.
The CGI work is stunning, but there were times when I found the directorial style rather irritating. Too often the point of view is from ground level, so that the characters are nearly always towering over the camera and looking down. I can only assume this was a deliberate move as it's done so often, but I'm not sure why. The aim should be to involve the audience, but this tends to alienate the feeling of participation or reality: penguins are not known for being tall creatures! That issue aside some of the scenes are breath-taking, almost life-like, and appear to be almost 3-dimensional in quality thanks to the clarity of high-definition. For most of its running time the film is breath-taking and internally consistent, and it's only in the last five to ten minutes that things start to fall apart.
In the final section of the film, where the ecological sub-text suddenly gets ramped up a number of notches, real-life humans are added into what has been completely computer-generated imagery up to that point. Since humans have already been depicted in CGI this comes across as a rather hokey effect to emphasise the importance of the 'green' message. With everything that's gone before, the effect is not dissimilar from someone who's been driving a car down a straight road for 90 minutes suddenly deciding for no apparent reason to swing a hard left! The overall impression, increased by not just the change in tone, but the visual representations used, is of an ending that's been tagged on from a completely different film, and for no apparent reason!
I also found the use of 'modern' pop songs irritating to the extreme. What happened to having songwriters actually write NEW songs for such films, instead of presenting us with hackneyed karaoke cover versions of 'popular' songs? There are a few word changes to acknowledge the fact the original song has been transplanted into a story, but the choice of songs doesn't seem particularly relevant to the story. Nor are the different songs consistent in style. One can only assume the decision was made based on needing to sell some obscure compilation album where the tracks available were negotiated at a bargain price, rather than their relevance to the plot.
Where the film does impress is in the casting. Of course if, like me, you find Robin Williams over-the-top performances more irritating than amusing, you may beg to differ, particularly since he's over-used here, voicing several characters instead of just one. But at least there is a script (of sorts)with a limited number of lines stopping him from completely taking over proceedings. Plus it's a relief we don't actually have to watch him.
Elijah Wood is perfectly cast as Mumble in a role that was tailor-made for him. Hugh Jackman shows with this film, as he does with Flushed Away (officially out on DVD tomorrow, when I'll be reviewing it), that he has a real talent for voice acting in the role of Memphis. Nicole Kidman turns in a surprisingly apt performance (I've never really been a fan of hers) as Norma Jean, and Hugo Weaving demonstrates (yet again) what a terrifically versatile actor he is, in the role of Noah the Elder.
Despite the inclusion of the song Let's Talk About Sex (WHOSE idea was that??!!!), this is a very family-friendly movie, targeted mainly at a young age group. Unfortunately the same can't be said for the two 'new' scenes (actually deleted scenes) included as extra's on the 'Special Features' menu. One of these introduces the late Steve Irwin, voicing a bird who encounters Mumble on his travels and calls him a 'wanker'! Lord knows what they were thinking when they recorded that, let alone included it on a DVD that will no doubt be played by toddlers around the land!
While there's plenty of interest in the main feature for those adults happy to re-kindle their inner child, there are none of the usual adult 'in' jokes that usually dominate such fare. This may be a curse of a blessing, depending on your viewpoint of whether such deliberate tactics to maximise the potential audience generally work in favour of the film as a whole, or have the opposite effect.
The extra's on the disc are, unfortunately, a bit thin. There's no real Making of,cast interviews or even snippets of the celebrities who voice the characters at work, as has become the norm on DVDs of this sort of film. There are a couple of 'new' scenes that were deleted from the film, but both are short and add little value or real excitement, the way a genuinely new 'mini-feature' usually does.
The main addition is a rather tedious Take a Private Dance Lesson featurette where Savion Glover explains the choreography performed by the penguins and demonstrates the tap-dancing sequences - dull as dishwater for adults, let alone children with a short attention span. The package is rounded out with a couple of short music videos, together with an old Warner Brothers cartoon I Love to Singa, presumably included because it has a similar 'odd one out' theme to Happy Feet. There's nothing here to get very excited about, and certainly no real usage has been made of the much-touted HD-DVD features like the U-Control in-picture feature that the tentpole releases have implemented.
If you've got kids then Happy Feet has to be a purchase rather than rental. This is one that is likely to get played over and over again. Even if you haven't got kids, if you're looking for a high definition showcase disc, this is as close to perfection as it gets, with some breath-takingly sharp hi-resolution scenes. Happy Feet is rather flawed in several respects, but it has a good heart and is a little gem of an HD-DVD nevertheless. Recommended!