Happy Feet's U certificate in the UK is something of a surprise. Yes, a movie about all-singing, all-dancing penguins was never going to get an 18, but there's a sense of ambition to this film – and some scenes that are particularly scary for small children – that makes you question the BBFC's logic. On the downside, cinema seats and infant pants will take a battering during the darker moments: a leopard seal attack is thrilling but vicious, the killer whale incident, ditto. However, opening the film up to the entire world, age-wise, means that the heavy ecological message will hit an awful lot of impressionable people.
The world of the emperor penguin – as documented by last year's March of The Penguins – is one of devotion and stoicism. And, according to this slice of CGI, music. Because to find their life partner, each penguin has a heart song and their life's work – well, until adolescence anyway – is to find out what that song is. Unfortunately for Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), singing isn't exactly a strong point. He tries hard but he just isn't a singer. When he needs to get in touch with his feelings, all that comes out is a screech ... but if he really lets go, the feet start moving.
Sadly, as far as the close-knit group is concerned, dancing to your own tune is 'just not penguin' and Mumble finds himself an outcast. Until, that is, circumstances throw him into a community of adelie penguins. And those boys can dance. Suddenly, with the help of Ramon (Williams) and his 'amigos', Mumble gains the confidence to romance the love of his life, Gloria (Murphy) and be himself. However, things on the ice aren't good. The fish supply is drying up. Mumble is pretty sure it's the mysterious aliens – two legs, hoods, front facing eyes – to blame. The emperor elders though decide it's Mumble's fault, because his unnatural ways have offended nature. So Mumble sets out to find the truth and save his community. And it's at this point that the tone of the film changes.
Cinematically speaking, the move is clunky and destroys the mood and the pace. But, in doing so, having lulled the audience in with its jolly tap-dancing penguins and disco classics (via a little dark religious allegory), the change of tone hits hard, and the message – man is destroying the planet and we’re all at fault – is all the more powerful. It's a brave move that, while a disaster in cinematic purist terms, can only be applauded for at least attempting to make the masses – from 3 to 83 – think. A strange film but, on balance, pretty much essential viewing.