Grade: C

Penguins have really been in fashion since an animated group of them pretty much stole “Madagascar” back in 2005, and the real article’s anthropomorphic huggability helped take their “March” to the very top of the documentary heap last year. Now George Miller, the guru behind “Babe,” has made them the stars of his big CGI song-and-dance extravaganza–a movie which may provide proof that one can take even the best things too far. “Happy Feet,” especially in its IMAX incarnation, is visually stunning (and would have been even more so had the makers gone through with their original intention to play it in IMAX 3-D). But it’s a curious sort of family film that’s part Las Vegas extravaganza and part pro-environmental tract, unlikely to enchant children but likely to bewilder their parents.

The central figure is Mumble (voiced initially by tyke E.G. Daily and later–rather blandly–by Elijah Wood), who’s born (following the procedure more fully–and awesomely–depicted in “March”) to pappy Memphis (Hugh Jackman) and mommy Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman). Unfortunately, from his first appearance he evinces a talent for tap-dancing and is unable to produce the “heartsong” obligatory to every penguin. The inability to sing and a proclivity to begin gyrating at inopportune moments makes him a virtual outcast, except for his mother and obviously smitten once-classmate Gloria (Brittany Murphy). To make matters worse, it’s believed by the traditionalists led by the ancient Noah (Hugo Weaving) that Mumble’s peculiarity may be offending the gods, resulting in a drop in the level of fish, the tribe’s dietary staple.

Eventually Mumble goes into exile to find the real source of the fish decline, falling in with a quintet of smaller penguins with unaccountable Mexican accents, self-styled The Amigos and led by the self-promoting Ramon (Robin Williams). They’re all taken by his terpsichore, and introduce him to their tribal prophet Lovelace (Williams again) who eventually becomes their guide to the “aliens” who are sweeping the sea clear of fish–human beings, of course. There’s a uplifting finale in which Mumble, taken off to an aquarium, somehow taps the message about the penguins’ predicament to the human world, setting off a movement to stop Antarctic fishing, and becoming a hero at home in the process.

If all this sounds vaguely weird, that’s because it is. It’s obvious that a great deal of time, energy and imagination have gone into making “Happy Feet,” but the result is an odd combination of elements that, like the penguins themselves, never really takes wing. One can appreciate the collection of songs–pop favorites from every era, from the fifties through rock and rap, with Latin-based numbers added when the Amigos enter the picture–put into the mouths of the birds, but these are numbers hardly designed to appeal to tykes, and the first section of the movie is so crammed with them that even grownups may feel themselves trapped with a radio that keeps moving from station to station (landing most often, and for the longest periods, on those that spotlight R&B tunes) and with a broken on-off button. Mumble’s dance moves, which often lift off into big ensemble sequences involving what look to be hundreds if not thousands of birds, have been carefully choreographed after those of no less than Savion Glover, but once again the sophistication is going to leap over the heads of children, who (along with some parents) will probably grow restless over the length of the resultant routines, however elegant they might be. Then there are episodes that, while technically impressive, don’t add much to the overall theme. One in which Mumble is chased by a predatory seal lion is brilliantly executed, but likely to terrify small children and ultimately completely incidental to the plot. (It, like a later sequence in which Mumble and The Amigos slide down great sheaths of ice, look especially to have been designed with 3-D in mind, and while they’re still eye-catching they could have been much more so in that process.) The feel-good finale seems rushed and pro-forma–not even the littlest urchins are likely to be taken in by it–even though it contains the movie’s only really inspired verbal moment, when a long-time resident of the aquarium tells a befuddled Mumble that he’s in paradise, in a voice that’s so devoid of emotion that it’s impossible not to think of HAL-9000.

And then there are the ethnic components of the singing and voicework, which aren’t merely peculiar but somewhat unsettling. Why do so many members of Mumble’s herd (including his father) sound vaguely African-American in diction, and why is the liberating group he falls in with so completely Hispanic? And within this constellation, why does Mumble himself sound so blandly white-bread, and the stentorian Noah Scottish (is he an intolerant Calvinist)? Is there rhyme or reason to it, or is it simply meant to be cute? If the latter, it fails.

The voice talent doesn’t match the visuals, either. Williams, as usual, hogs the spotlight as Ramon and Lovelace both (he also serves as narrator), and none of the other big names distinguish themselves (Jackman, in fact, was a mite better in “Flushed Away”)–except for Anthony LaPaglia, who comes on very strong as a wiseguy gull out to eat little Mumble.

You have to respect “Happy Feet,” not just because of its visual side, which borders on the awesome, but because it’s obviously trying to be more than just a standard-issue piece of CGI hack work, the sort that studios are churning out with depressing regularity nowadays. But in this case being different doesn’t translate into delight. It’s easy to admire the craft that went into making this movie, but it’s much harder to feel real affection for the result.