In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
In the tradition of a classic Disney-esque animated fairy tale The Tale of Despereaux based on the award winning children’s classic by Kate DiCamillo is about a mouse named Despereaux (Matthew Broderick) with Dumbo-sized ears and an oversized heart. His home the Kingdom of Dor was once a happy place but now due to unexpected events it has been shrouded by doom and gloom. Not for Despereaux! The fearless rodent doesn’t adhere to the usual mouse-like criteria but instead yearns for adventure especially after he starts reading fables from the castle library. He also bonds with Princess Pea (Emma Watson) who is sad and lonely her kingdom is in such disarray. Despereaux looks at her as a damsel in distress and wants to help. Unfortunately these are all serious no-nos in Mouseworld and so Despereaux is banished him to live in the dungeon with the evil Rats where he meets an agreeable rat Roscuro (Dustin Hoffman) who is also different from his kind. Roscuro wants to right some past wrongs but is spurned by the princess. Needless to say things do indeed go awry and Despereaux must summon all his courage and bravery to save the day. Some of the best ensemble casts in movies are being assembled for animated features these days and The Tale of Despereaux is a prime example. Broderick is ideal as the dignified and ultimately courageous little mouse. Hoffman -- in his second ‘toon turn of the year (Kung Fu Panda) -- proves again as the soup-loving Roscuro he has a real future as an animated character. Harry Potter’s Watson has the perfunctory English princess role but plays it with compassion while Tracey Ullman as maid-cum-wannabe princess Mig doesn’t go for the laughs but portrays Mig as a hopeful outcast looking for a fairy tale ending to her humdrum life. A whole set of other wonderful vocal talents in Despereaux include Kevin Kline Frank Langella Richard Jenkins Stanley Tucci William H. Macy Robbie Coltrane and Christopher Lloyd. And to top it off with just the right touch of whimsy is the lilting narration of Sigourney Weaver whose comforting voice will assure the youngest kids in the audience that things in Dor aren’t quite as dire as they appear. Co-directors Sam Fell and Rob Stevenhagen invest into this gorgeous-looking film all the care that went into the art of DiCamillo’s beautiful book. In fact unlike many other recent animated features Despereaux is distinctly old-fashioned despite all the CGI. The look of the movie is definitely inspired by older more traditional Disney-style fairy tale classics. Gary Ross’ (Seabiscuit) fine screenplay is reverential to the book and doesn’t back away from the darker aspects of the story which despite its G rating might be a little on the scary side for the very young ones. For everyone else The Tale of Despereaux is most likely this season’s must-see movie event for the entire family.
Knocked Up barely meets the “romance” quota that qualifies it as a romantic comedy but fear not fellas—it’s mostly comedy and of the highest grade. The movie centers around two twentysomethings who couldn’t be more different: gorgeous careful career-minded Alison (Katherine Heigl) and beastly reckless foggy-minded Ben (Seth Rogen). After a promotion at her job working for the E! network Alison decides to cut loose for one night and celebrate. She and her sister (Leslie Mann) go out to a local club where they meet Ben and his stoner friends (Jason Segel Jay Baruchel Jonah Hill and Martin Starr). One drink leads to another and before long Alison is drunk enough to take Ben home and into bed. Eight weeks later Alison is singing the morning-sickness blues and sure enough pregnancy test after pregnancy test confirms her worst fear: bun in the oven...from a one-night stand...with a guy who repulsed her when she saw him through sober eyes. So she decides to tell manchild Ben that he knocked her up and it changes everything—well sorta. Meet Seth Rogen this year’s Steve Carell Award winner for Breakout Star and Best Unknown Lead. Of course neither Carell nor Rogen was truly unknown before his respective breakout—Rogen it could be argued really broke out in last year’s 40-Year-Old Virgin alongside Carell—but the Everyman appeal and unlikely ascension to stardom between the two are similar. As with Virgin Rogen is hilarious primarily with the delivery of the absurdity he spews. And not only does Rogen display a surprising soft-ish side when necessary he projects something so relatable that you’ll swear you’ve had a Ben in your circle of friends at one point. The glue of the onscreen relationship and chemistry is Heigl. The Grey’s Anatomy star shows that she’s much more than a pretty face convincingly going hormonal as hell while improving upon the comedic chops she hinted at in the god-awful The Ringer. Mann writer/director Judd Apatow’s real-life wife and the only other source of estrogen in the movie is very much game for the pot(ty mouth) humor but it’s Paul Rudd as Mann’s cynical husband who seems to be Apatow’s comedic muse. Already a member of the Frat Pack it’s only a matter of time before Judd makes Rudd his lead. Judd Apatow has been working for much longer than most people care to realize but he finally made a splash (read: box office hit) with last year’s Virgin and Knocked Up solidifies him as the one to beat when it comes to comedy. Apatow combines certain elements that make his style reign supreme. First and foremost is a distinct note of improvisation that makes his actors—many of whom he repeatedly employs—feel at home and thus his audiences do as well. Then there’s his affection for the underdog which is no doubt how he sees or once saw himself. It not only endears him to his ever-growing fan base it’s a theme that grows on you throughout the course of his movies (namely his last two) convincing you that sometimes the good guy CAN get the girl. Knocked Up builds on both themes: The actors seem like they sat around with Apatow took one toke too many and started riffing on each other and pop culture; and Rogen is certainly Apatow’s underdog a nod to underdog dreamers everywhere and to comedy by implying “Would it be funny if the movie was George Clooney trying to woo Katherine Heigl?” He caps it off in mature real-world fashion to mimic his protagonist’s arc by throwing in some sentimentality. It's effective and seems credible which sums up all of Apatow's work.