Another penguin movie? With the inexplicable craze that developed for penguin-themed entertainment a few years ago, it was hard to hold out high hopes for Happy Feet and its seemingly silly and childish concept... especially if the trailer was anything to go by. Boy, was I wrong. With a level of animation detail and sophistication reaching the best of Pixar’s productions, Happy Feet is a tour-de-force in both visual and audio fronts, and even managed to keep me entertained over it’s longer than usual runtime of 108 minutes.
Down south – way, way down south – at the Antarctic, a large colony of Emperor penguins are going about their daily lives. As we soon learn it’s become mating season, and each penguin must use its “heart song” – thoughtfully translated as modern pop music for the benefit of the audience – to find their soul mate. Two penguins, Norma Jean and Memphis, find each other through song and eventually hatch their son, Mumble.
Unfortunately, something’s not entirely right with Mumble – he has what he calls “happy feet” and is constantly moving and tapping across the ice. And despite his best efforts he absolutely can’t sing, a skill absolutely required by the colony. At the end of the season when the youths graduate their schooling and head off on their first fishing expedition, the elders refuse to officially pass Mumble as without a harmonious song he won’t be able to find a mate. Not to mention that his efforts to express himself through dancing go over rather poorly. Shunned by the group and forced to make his own way in the world, Mumble embarks on an incredible adventure across the ice and beyond.
As I mentioned earlier, Happy Feet was a complete surprise to me. Not only because I had a completely different notion of what the movie’s plot line was about (American Idol with penguins), but also because I ended up finding it so wholeheartedly entertaining. Whether I was ogling the rich animation, appreciating the extravaganza of instantly recognizable pop songs, or laughing out loud over something said or done (always pay attention to what’s going on in the background), Happy Feet’s 108 minute runtime passed by rather quickly. In fact, considering the quality of the animation I’m amazed that they opted to produce a film that’s a good 30 to 40 minutes longer than the average “full length” animated film.
Being almost entirely computer generated, the direct digital film transfer on Happy Feet is absolutely excellent. With nearly continuous brightly lit snow-filled scenes demanding a wide range of intricate details, Happy Feet manages to be both vibrant and eye-popping, while maintaining a solid black level foundation. Smooth and subtle graduations are presented without any posterization, from baby blue skies to slight shifts in the near-but-not-quite white used to depict ice and snow.
There are numerous wide angle shots featuring thousands of moving penguins that really exemplifies the incredible (and obviously practical) added detail and clarity that 1080p can offer over 480p. Viewed on a 1080p plasma, many scenes had such depth that I could have sworn they were being shown in full 3D. Overall detail levels are fantastic, with a top-notch VC-1 MPEG4 transfer that averages 7mbit to 21mbit, with peaks reaching above 29mbit.
While no doubt a showcase transfer, I did observe a couple of scenes with questionable lighter black levels that seemed out of character with the rest of the film’s perfection. Whether intentional or not, it was distracting.
Warner unfortunately skimped on the audio side of the Happy Feet Blu-ray, by only providing an ordinary Dolby Digital 5.1 EX soundtrack. Despite this oversight, it’s particularly good sounding for Dolby Digital and rivals some of the best I’ve ever heard. Happy Feet could nearly be called a musical – while the characters don’t speak in song as such, they are nonetheless either singing much of the time or there’s some sort of modern music playing in the background. It’s a very busy mix, with a complete and full soundstage that encompasses all channels, with particular attention focused on the rears. I heard absolutely no background noise, peaking, distortion or other disconcerting blips throughout the entire film.
Dialogue is solid, clear and well balanced with the music and effects, and I had no trouble understanding any of the lines. Your subwoofer will get something of a workout in a couple of scenes, but overall this isn’t the type of movie where a subwoofer plays a key role.
So, while Happy Feet’s soundtrack is one of the film’s major highlights and the disc does include a good-sounding 640kbps Dolby Digital encoding, as a BD it loses marks for not being uncompressed, or even Dolby Digital Plus (note that the HD DVD version includes both Dolby TrueHD uncompressed and Dolby Digital Plus tracks, so this omission is inexcusable). With such a full-bodied soundtrack, I can only wonder how good it would sound had Warner opted for lossless.
Also included are French and Spanish 5.1 EX tracks, plus English, English for the Hearing Impaired, French and Spanish subtitles.
The Happy Feet Blu-ray includes a rather small selection of bonus material, and very little of it in high definition. Menus screens are static, but on the plus side the disc launches directly into the movie without any previews or other advertisements.
- Deleted scenes (1080p/5.1): A pair of fully animated deleted scenes are included. One is extremely short – seconds long – but the other is lengthy and worth a look. It stars Steve Irwin as an albatross, and was originally cut early during the film’s production. It was finished solely for the home video release.
- Music Videos (480p/2.0): Two music videos are available - Hit Me Up by Gia and The Song of the Heart by Prince. Both are in 480p letterboxed video and stereo sound.
- Cartoon (480p/2.0): A very grainy and generally unrestored-looking copy of the old Looney Tunes cartoon, I love to Singa, featuring a family of singling owls.
- Trailer (480p/2.0): The movie’s original theatrical trailer, strangely provided only in SD video (considering that it was released online in high definition).
- Dance Like a Penguin (480p/2.0): Subtitled Stomp to the Beat, this described as a “private dance lesson” with Savion Glover, who provided the amazing motion capture tap dance work for the film. At just over 5 minutes in length, I guess Savion couldn’t spare too much time...
Without any sort of behind-the-scenes material like a commentary track or documentary, I can’t help but feel that there will be a special edition of Happy Feet at some point, perhaps when the planned sequel comes out in a few years. But for now, I can definitely recommend Happy Feet to both families and anyone who appreciates computer animation. Although the Blu-ray release is disappointing in some ways – especially compared to the now obsolete HD DVD release – it’s still the best way to enjoy the movie.
- Daniel Tonks (Remote Central, 03/12/09)