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Happy Feet (HD DVD Combo Disc)

With its computer animated video and up-to-the-minute audio mix, Happy Feet is far more dazzling technically than March of the Penguins. Here we have the same sort of penguins as before, but with a smaller species thrown into the story as well. The life-cycle/survival situation here is the same, but in this film it's a backdrop for the plot. The penguins here are a lot more communicative. They talk, sing, and dance almost constantly. Or rather, Mumble, our hapless hero, dances. While the other penguins sing, he can't warble a single tuneful note. But he's Gotta Dance.

The significance of the singing depicted here only becomes clear if you've seen March of the Penguins. In real life the individual penguins, reunited after their various individual trips to the fishing grounds, can only recognize their mates and chicks by their distinctive chirping. It's a vital survival skill. If momma doesn't find her mate and chick with the food she brings back in her belly, they will starve.

Of course, if penguins could talk like the ones in Happy Feet, singing becomes less important. But without the singing, the movie would loose a lot of its charm. The choice of music, however, was often bizarre—Elvis, the Blues, and an underwater Busby Berkeley routine stick in my memory. But if you can accept anthropomorphic birds doing Memphis and Motown, you'll have fun.

Most of the story moves along crisply, though it does drag in spots. At 108 minutes—28 minutes longer than March—it is a little indulgent. The film also turns preachy toward the end—something about man's overfishing of the waters off Antarctica and compromising the penguin's food source. A brief Internet search revealed that while this is being watched closely, as of now it is not an issue.

The video on this disc is stunning (reviewed on HD DVD, also available on Blu-ray). Computer animation nearly always looks great on video, particularly in high definition, and this one takes its place alongside The Wild and as among the best-looking high definition discs you'll find. It is sharp, crisp, and surprisingly colorful for a feature set in a landscape dominated by white ice and blue skies. And since most of it takes place in bright sunshine, it should dazzle even on a digital display with mediocre blacks.

The audio is very nearly as good. I have not yet auditioned the HD DVD's Dolby TrueHD track, but the DD+ track (transposed to DTS at the digital output of my Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player), apart from a little excessive brightness in a couple of the musical numbers, was open, clean, and detailed. And there are action scenes here that will curl your toes with outstanding dynamic range, active surrounds, and strikingly powerful bass.

Two thumbs up for the penguins.

Picture: 10 (out of 10)…Sound: 9.0…Film: 7.5

(Reviewed on a Toshiba HD-A1 HD DVD player, Panasonic PT-AE1000U LCD projector, 78" wide Stewart Studiotek 130 screen, and Arcam AVR350 receiver. Speakers: Mirage OMD-28 L/R, OMD-C2 center, OMD-R surrounds, and Revel B15 subwoofer.)

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