Down there for dancing

In the South Pole, a solitary penguin sets out to save the environment, while back in the city a traffic warden deludes himself into thinking he can save the whole world. By Declan Burke



It's not often you get to use the words “traffic warden” and “superhero” in the same sentence, but meter-man Les (Michael Rapaport) is a comic-book fiend. And when Les has a mildly psychotic reaction to an experimental medication, he makes a mental leap that defies logic: he comes to believe he has superhuman powers.

A gentle, bittersweet comedy about the power of self-delusion, Special (12s) is a quietly enjoyable experience on many levels. The very fact that Les's instinct is to don a cape and go forth onto the mean-ish streets to do good deeds makes for a refreshing change, as does the makers' refusal to mock his naívety. Co-written and co-directed by Hal Haberman and Jeremy Passmore, Special celebrates Les's willingness to make a positive contribution, to break out of his cycle of quiet desperation by helping those around him.

Of course, the sight of Les running full-force into walls in the belief that he's running through them, and his grappling of unsuspecting (and harmless) shoppers to the ground, is funny in itself, but the reaction of his friends, comic-shop owners Joey (Josh Peck) and Everett (Robert Baker), offers a touching commentary on the esprit de corps that exists among those who find themselves marginalised from the mainstream of life. Rapaport turns in a hugely compelling performance that blends his gauche attempts to communicate with the world around him with a genuine desire to make even a tiny difference to the lives of other people, and it's impossible to resist his boyish charm. Beautifully lit and shot by cameraman Nelson Cragg, this is Kafka's Metamorphosis redrafted by Kurt Vonnegut, with all the huge-hearted empathy for the plight of an all-too-ordinary humanity that that implies.

Humanity is the villain of the piece in Happy Feet (PG), an animated tale set among the Emperor penguins of the Antarctic. Born into a society that bonds through singing, Mumbles (voiced by Elijah Wood) sings like a constipated frog – but boy is he special when it comes to dancing. Unfortunately for Mumbles, his birth coincides with a depletion in fish stocks, and his passion for dancing is blamed for this wholly unnatural state of affairs. Banished by the colony's elders, Mumbles sets out to cross the barren wastes on an epic journey to confront the unknown aliens who are strip-mining the seas.

A cartoon version of last year's surprise smash The March of the Penguins, this is superbly animated with a strong voice cast (Nicole Kidman, Hugh Jackman, Hugo Weaving, Robin Williams), a number of thrilling set-pieces and two serious concepts for the kids to ponder: one, it's okay to be different from everyone else, and two, when it comes to saving the environment, everybody has a role to play, no matter how small.

On the downside, the story has a scattergun feel to it, and those themes are treated in a very simplistic manner. Still, if it's entertainment you're after, Happy Feet will get your toes a-tapping and put a smile on your face. Brace yourself for penguin-mania.    

Special ***

Happy Feet ****