Games based on kid-friendly properties don't need to be inferior. It's a shocking sentiment, but games like Cars and Barnyard prove that an animated film can produce more than a cheap cash-in. It's too bad that Midway and Warner Brothers missed the memo and churned out another lame movie game that sucks the happiness right out of Happy Feet. As a licensed product, it's mediocre, with enough charming moments to rescue it from the immediate bargain-basement abyss. But as a game, it's an absolute insult and more likely to put kids to sleep than it is to entertain them.
In Happy Feet, you guide film hero Mumble through a pared-down version of his animated adventure. The emperor penguins value the "heartsong" over all other art forms and ostracize Mumble for his total lack of vocal prowess but considerable dancing skills. Even worse, they blame him for the disappearing fish population. Eventually, he finds a new family in a small flock of Hispanic penguins, but he later returns to find his home endangered by human "aliens." You'll meet a number of enchanting characters along the way: Ramon, the Taco Bell Chihuahua of the penguin world; Lovelace, an avian spiritual leader with a plastic six-pack ring wrapped around his neck; and Mumble's father Memphis, whose accent is more than a little inspired by Elvis Presley. Part Bambi, part The Lion King, and part Footloose, the game is noticeably lighter in mood than the movie. That's not bad, considering how serious and dark the film often gets. However, aside from the tone, Happy Feet retells the same basic story with a few clichéd additions that provide an excuse for the gameplay.
But there is barely anything there to justify using the license for a game, as opposed to, say, a pop-up book or a karaoke CD. Every level features only one of three basic minigames. Dancing mode is the usual Dance Dance Revolution-type level, with three difficulty settings ranging from easy to complete cakewalk. The songs aren't all featured on the film soundtrack, though, so fans may be stymied by the appearance of artists like KC & The Sunshine Band and Dee-Lite. There are also some weird design choices in these segments. In the "Somebody to Love" level, the player is required to tap out rhythms of two, even though the song beat is in three. In the same level, the minigame ends and you exit the scene before the song is done, which is a letdown.
Both the swimming and belly-sledding levels take place on rails. Belly sledding is a tad superior thanks to its sense of speed. In these stages, you maneuver Mumble through slippery courses of ice and snow, sometimes collecting level-specific items or aiming for speed boosts that send you hurtling through the air. Other games like last year's The Chronicles of Narnia feature similar and superior scenes, but it's still mildly amusing in Happy Feet when soaring through the air after a particularly strong boost. Things slow down to a dead halt in the swimming levels, where you may be tasked with collecting "lovestones," chasing fish, or escaping sharks. The objectives differ slightly every time, but the core gameplay is exactly the same: The level pulls Mumble along, and you steer him to and fro. On the console version (and the PC, if you use a gamepad instead of the arrow keys), you maneuver with the analog stick. On the Wii, you tilt the remote. Any way you slice it, it's far too simple to be any fun.
And sadly, that is all there is to it. 2004's Shark Tale featured many of the same modes but mixed them up nicely with a series of objectives that made the levels interesting. The difference between collecting hearts and collecting fish is negligible, though, which means that once you've played for 10 minutes, you've seen everything Happy Feet has to offer, even if you play through all of the game's three grueling hours. Granted, you earn medals in each level based on performance and getting gold medals unlocks the supposed "extras." But the unlockables are the same scenes you already saw in the dance levels, just without any gameplay. In other words, they're useless and an affront to the intelligence of players of any age, which completely eliminates any reason to collect gold medals in the first place.
But that's not the only insult Happy Feet has to offer. Including character Ramon and his heavy Mexican accent is one thing, but phonetically spelling out the stereotypical speech in the subtitles isn't amusing--it's offensive. For example, "you" is sometimes spelled as "joo," and the fact that it isn't consistent just draws more attention to it when the lines are presented in that manner.
In the unlikely event that these three minigames are your cup of tea and you want to involve a friend--or abuse an enemy--you can ask another player to join you. In dance mode, this involves competing for the best score. In belly sledding, one player steers Mumble while the other presses button combinations (or flicks the Wii Remote) to smash obstacles in the way. Swimming involves collecting more items than your opponent. It's an amazing display of design failure: including a buddy doesn't make Happy Feet any more fun.
Happy Feet isn't exactly ugly, but it's got numerous graphical flaws that stand out. Some of the snowy environments are nice and feature falling icicles and destructible objects. But there are obvious seams where some polygons meet, as well as a ton of blurry textures to contend with. For a game based on an animated film, the models move stiffly and the speech is poorly synced with the beak movements. The lack of transition between the end of a level and the following cutscene is jarring--it just cuts immediately without so much as a fade. The PlayStation 2 and GameCube versions look identical to each other, while the PC version features an "enhanced" engine, which adds bloom lighting but looks otherwise unremarkable. The Wii version looks a little crisper than the other console versions, but not enough to make it worth another $20 bucks. Thankfully, the sound surpasses the visuals, due to a strong voice cast and John Powell's lovely orchestral score.
There's no reason to play Happy Feet. If you liked the film, buy another ticket and watch it again. If you still can't get enough, buy a licensed mug or something. And if you're looking for a gift to get your kids this holiday season, it's better to slip a lump of coal into their stockings than to offend them with this kind of branded rubbish.