You can’t judge a movie by its trailer

“Happy Feet”Warner Bros. PicturesDirected by George MillerWritten by Warren Coleman, John Collee, George Miller and Judy MorrisStarring the voices of Elijah Wood, Brittany Murphy, Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Hugo Weaving and Robin WilliamsRated PG/87 minutesOpened Nov. 17, 2006Four out of four stars

Here it is, “Happy Feet,” a movie that has every reason to be annoying and lame–jabbering anthropomorphic penguins raising the roof to an easily merchandisable CD’s worth of pop and R&B medleys–but, remarkably, it’s one of the most creative, visually stunning and downright fun movies–animated or otherwise–of the year.

A lot of the credit goes to Aussie filmmaker George Miller, the madcap wit behind the irresistibly charming “Babe” movies, not to mention the rambunctious dystopia of the “Mad Max” series. He and his talented team of writers and animators have not only created a colorful, menacing, toe-tapping world that brims with tuneful penguin life, but they’ve also taken the care to involve their characters in a touching story that constantly surprises. There are sights and sounds in “Happy Feet” that bypass any sort of intellectual response and go straight for the emotions. What a stirring, exhilarating, eye-popping experience this is!

Forget about what you learned by watching “March of the Penguins”–these are not the squawking, tuxedoed birds from your mama’s National Geographic special. They belt out Queen, Elvis Presley, Prince and The Beach Boys in their efforts to attract a mate. These “Heart Songs” are essential and unique to each penguin and form a social structure that is unkind to misfits like Mumbles (Elijah Wood, standing out from the flock with his piercing blue eyes and tentative voice), whose singing could be mistaken as strangling. He does, however, have a talent for dancing, which goes over about as well as a streaker at a baby blessing in a church. He’s laughed at and scorned by his elders, who think Mumbles is a slight against the penguin god and the reason there’s a shortage of fish in the ocean.

Mumbles is banished from the berg, but he finds friends in the form of four pint-sized, Latino penguins, including Ramon (Robin Williams, in hilarious, cabana-boy mode). They slip-slide their lives away, surfing down cliffs of ice on their bellies (one roller-coaster sequence in particular actually makes me want to see this movie in 3-D), until a nasty avalanche unveils a monstrous alien contraption. Mumbles suspects that whoever or whatever created this machine is the true force behind the fish shortage. He and his newfound friends journey north to make contact with the “aliens” in order to save their fledgling world.

It’s during this quest that “Happy Feet” transcends the stale formulas of almost every animated film this year and becomes something otherworldly, magical and kind of creepy. I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the surprises, but I must point out a scene in which Mumbles is observed by the “aliens” and I got tears in my eyes–not just out of sadness, but also out of amazement and gratitude that the filmmakers were daring enough to take the story to unexplored terrain and instill in us a real sense of awe.

Oh, and the dancing! Tap-dancing king Savion Glover provides the motion-captured movements for Mumbles and it’s a joy to behold. The same goes for all 87 wonderful minutes of “Happy Feet.” It’s a treasure for kids and adults. If it doesn’t win the Academy Award for Best Animated Film, a penguin should tap-dance on the voters’ heads until they come back to their senses.

“Who needs flying when we can BANGARANG!” Mumbles flies with his muchachos in “Happy Feet.”