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DANCIN' `FEET' YOU GOTTA LOVE.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Critic

If you've got to see a dancing cartoon penguin movie, you could do worse than ``Happy Feet.''

Directed by George Miller, who is bipolarly responsible for the ``Babe'' and ``Mad Max'' films, it's a better-than-average talking-animal outing that fully exploits the visual possibilities of its frigid and underwater settings. Penguins make a fireworks show out of synchronized swimming and an avalanche makes for pure CG roller coaster thrills.

Singing and dancing aspects prove a bit more questionable, but the production numbers are generally exhilarating. The main problem is that there are a few too many of them, and you eventually get the impression that every plot turn will be resolved with some kind of musical solution.

Balancing that out are a series of truly hair-raising -- or feather-raising, or whatever it is penguins have -- encounters with predators. These are and should be scary for little kids, and kudos to Miller and company for keeping the story tuned into fundamental animal endeavors such as feeding, mating and surviving.

But don't worry about that too much. A lot of them crack jokes, too. Heck, Robin Williams voices two of the birds.

The story is your basic misfit-on-a-quest-to-help-the-society-that-rejected-him plot, enabled by the fact that most people know the basics about emperor penguin society from that documentary everyone saw last year.

Mumble (voice by Elijah Wood, moves by a motion-capture-rigged Savion Glover) can't sing, which makes finding a mate with the standard heartsong problematic. But boy, can he tap dance!

The other young penguins think he's weird, the elders believe he has angered their god and is responsible for a fish famine, and the most beautiful hen in his whole flock, Gloria (Brittany Murphy), likes him anyway.

Nevertheless, Mumble's unapologetic oddity gets him banished from his harmonious group several times. Shorter, somewhat stereotyped Latino penguins from a different species think Mumble's the bomb, though, and they eventually accompany him on the arduous trek to discover the real source of the food depletion.

How much do you want to bet that they find a serious environmental message?

There is so much eye-popping, ear-pleasing beauty in ``Happy Feet'' that you kind of hate to mention that some of its narrative moments feel too abrupt or poorly prepared, especially toward the end. But so it is. On the other hand, there's a mythic grandeur to the whole shebang that most films about talking animals fall well short of achieving these days.

And yeah, the pop hits sound good (Prince even rewrote his great ``Kiss'' to suit the movie), especially coming out of the mouths of Murphy and such other great singing actors such as Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman. If this digital dance party doesn't make your feet move just a little, you're not a sentient being.

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss@dailynews.com

HAPPY FEET - Three stars

(PG: violence)

Starring: Voices of Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman.

Director: George Miller.

Running time: 1 hr. 38 min.

Playing: In wide release.

In a nutshell: Dancing cartoon penguins! You know if you need to go, but at least it's fairly well done for this kind of thing.

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

Norma Jean (voiced by Nicole Kidman), young Mumble (E.G. Daily) and Memphis (Hugh Jackman) are a contented penguin family in ``Happy Feet.''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Nov 17, 2006
Words:556
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