Ice Capades on thin ice

The penguins of ‘Happy Feet’ jump for joy, until the iceberg melts away

Sara Nicole Miller

The 20th century was an era of all things equatorial: Common consumptive icons, such as the “The Jungle Book,” the Chiquita banana lady and The Rainforest Café, entertained and satiated American consumers throughout the decades. The giant panda, which first arrived in America in the 1930s, became the much-adored animal du jour. But, in celebrating the exotic and endangered, we conveniently ignored the latitudinal extremes of the natural world.

“Happy Feet”
DIRECTED BY: George Miller
STARRING: Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman
RATED: PG
SHOWING AT: Area Theaters

We’re in a completely different century now and the times, they are a-changin’. Global warming stole the spotlight away from tropical deforestation. Now we’re nostalgic for the days devoid of dying polar bears and El Niño. Penguins are the new poster child for the endangered animal kingdom, and they’re making high-profile appearances on everything, from award-winning documentaries (“March of the Penguins”) to J.Crew fitted blouses and panties.

The new animated film, “Happy Feet,” takes the sudden popularity of these tuxedo-sportin’ avian midgets to a whole new entertaining level.

“Happy Feet” is a sophisticated animation film, compiled of brilliantly choreographed song-and-dance numbers, plenty of pop music renditions (Prince, Grandmaster Flash and Boyz II Men) and cautionary tales for a homosapien audience in the age of global warming.

Set within the icy, barren regions of the South Pole, “Happy Feet” tells the tale of Mumble (Elijah Wood), a unique Emperor Penguin who can’t sing to save his tail, but can tap dance and boogie-woogie unlike any other penguin.

The Emperor Penguin community – whose whole raison d’etre revolves around each individual’s search for his/her own heart song – shuns Mumble’s dancing ways and exiles him from the community.

But Mumble is determined, both to prove himself and to save his community from starvation. The ramblin’ bird embarks on a venture across the continent to the “Forbidden Shore” – a human encampment littered with steel machinery and whale skeletons – in order to discover the cause of the fish shortages.

Along his journey, he befriends a group of Adelie penguins, led by Ramon (Robin Williams). With rambunctious Latino accents and personalized feathered Mohawks, the lovable hooligans provide friendly inspiration for Mumble on his pilgrimage.

The motley crew, amid their quest to save the penguin populace, survives run-ins with polar predators – maniacal, yellow-toothed sea lions and acrobatic killer whales – and lives to sing “Boogie Wonderland.”

In many ways, the film illuminates the (stereotypical) diversity of human linguistics: The dominant female is big-bosomed and presumably Russian, Mumble’s father, Memphis (Hugh Jackman), has a lovely backcountry drawl and the head elder squabbles like an Irishman. It taps into modified 21st century anxieties about xenophobia and bigotry.

The film’s depiction of Antarctica’s frozen landscapes is captivating, and the animation is beautiful; it is crisp, realistic and evocative. One scene portrays a penguin party atop an iceberg, with the Aurora Australis (Southern Lights) display substituting for the artificial flashiness of the modern discothèque.

Even among all of the musical glee and fuzzy little penguin offspring, the singing and dancing can’t cover up the film’s somber message: The massive human footprint is devastating to the global environment, even in areas that seem a world away.