HAPPY FEET * * *
CertU 109 mins
If someone really wanted to make a killing with a CGI animation, they'd come up with a story involving both hyperactive squirrels and penguins. Both are patently audience winners.
The bushy tail boys went nuts in Over The Hedge, Hoodwinked, Open Season and (sort of) Ice Age 2 while the waddling tuxedos crashed Madagascar, starred in their own spin-off short and are due to ride the waves in next year's Surf's Up.
Meanwhile, here's George 'Babe' Miller's all singing, all dancing fable in which, dropped as an egg, young emperor penguin Mumble (Elijah Wood) proves vocally challenged, and therefore unable to belt out the heartsong by which his kind find their soul mates.
He is, though, a tap dancing whiz, expressing his feelings through the beat of his feet.
Unfortunately, while mom Norma Jean (Nicole Kidman) and bird of his dreams Gloria (Brittany Murphy proving she's got a belting set of pipes) think his hippity-hoppity ways are kinda cute, dad Memphis (Hugh Jackman) is guiltily ashamed that it's "just not penguin", and goes along with the wizened colony elder (Hugo Weaving) in insisting their ain't no pedicure for love.
Exiled because it's believed his "freak" nature has upset the Great Guin, which is why the fish supply's dried up, Mumble hooks up with a bunch of small Latino penguins who reckon he's dancing cool not a dancing fool, and sets off to find the 'aliens' who are really responsible for the fish shortage. A quest that will involve close encounters with elephant seals (one voiced by the late Steve Irwin) and killer whales.
In visual terms alone, it's the finest CGI animation yet, the intensive Antarctica research producing an astonishingly realistic landscape to go with the detail in the realisation of the characters.
For the scenes when Mumble ends up in a zoo, it also wisely circumnavigates the difficulty of rendering humans but splicing live actors in with the CGI.
With close ups, panoramic long shots and a flurry of snow rolling action and busy backgrounds, it's energetically alive on screen while the constant penguin musical routines (created via capture motion), featuring everything from Elvis, Prince, and Queen to Sinatra, Stevie Wonder and Earth Wind And Fire, makes it feel like Moulin Rouge with flippers.
There's some dazzling production numbers here, prime among them, Kidman singing Kiss, a giddy Surfing USA and a wry rendition of Leader of the Pack.
But, ultimately it's a triumph of penguin pizzazz over narrative thin ice, with repetitive scenes of Mumble leaving the colony, returning, then being sent away again, and perhaps rather a little too much Robin Williams voicing two Hispanic penguins, party hearty Ramon and Barry White-like Rockhopper guru Lovelace.
And then Miller rushes the upbeat ending, trowelling on a worthy but clumsily delivered environmental message to go with the one about celebrating rather than rejecting the differences that make everyone an individual.
Even so, the march of the penguins up box office summits looks like being unstoppable.
THE COVENANT *
Cert 12A 97 mins
Renny Harlin has made some rubbish in his time, but even he must be wondering what possessed him to direct this dire attempt to do for warlocks what Lost Boys did for vampires and The Craft for adolescent witches.
Setting up the background with some dodgy flashbacks to witch hunt Salem and a covenant of silence, we find four teen studs at an elite Academy all descended from New England families gifted with supernatural powers.
However, using them causes premature ageing, so de facto leader Caleb (Steven Strait) does his best to keep the others on a tight leash. Not always successfully.
His 18th birthday, and ascent to full powers, approaching, Caleb's been charged with looking after school newcomer Chase (Sebastian Stan) who, it quickly becomes obvious, is the malevolent descendent of another family believed extinct and now wants to take the powers of Caleb and the others for himself.
Derivative and dull, it's an embarrassing amateurish unscary affair riddled with dreadful dialogue, bad acting, tired clichés, cheap looking effects, a plot that rarely makes any sense, gratuitous homoeroticism and underwear flashing female characters that put the cause of feminism back to the dark ages.
"This is beyond idiotic!", someone declares. Indeed.
THE HOLIDAY * * *
Cert12A 135 mins
A Christmas chick flick box of candies, this doesn't match the sophisticated wit of director Nancy Meyers' earlier What Women Want and Something's Got To Give, but its ribbon-wrapped double dose meet-cute (which, at one point, someone actually explains) screwball romcom does have the comforting warm aroma of chestnuts roasting by an open fire.
The second time she's played an Iris, Kate Winslet writes fluff stories for the Daily Telegraph. Naturally, her own love-life is a wreck, hopelessly besotted with tellingly named love rat colleague Jasper (Rufus Sewell) who won't let her off his hook even though he's just announced his engagement.
Weeping buckets in her picture postcard, snowy Surrey cottage, she gets an e mail from Beverly Hills.
On the other end of cyberspace is Amanda (Cameon Diaz), a career-driven successful movie trailer maker but tears-challenged commitment disaster who's just dumped her cheating boyfriend (Edward Burns).
Deciding she needs "some peace and quiet, or whatever it is people go away for", she discovers a house exchange web site and within seconds she and Iris are crossing climates and cultures to spend Christmas in each other's decidedly different homes.
Both looking to escape men problems, inevitably each finds romance knocking on the door.
For uptight Amanda (who amusingly keeps hearing trailers of her life), it's Iris's charmer brother Graham (Jude Law), an apparent womaniser who turns up drunk and gets an unexpected night cap; for Iris, it's Miles (Jack Black), a sweetly sensitive film musician currently dating a superficial actress.
While Amanda and Graham wrestle with their feelings, Iris's emotional batteries are also recharged by a poignant friendship with infirm neighbour Arthur Abbott (a scene-stealing Eli Wallach), a veteran Hollywood screenwriter (he added "kid" to "here's looking at you") resisting a tribute evening for fear of humiliation, who introduces her to old movies starring women with gumption.
Despite overdoing leaping in the air exuberance, Winslet's comedic side makes a welcome return, Diaz's ditz routine gets an amiable workout, Law's not as smug as usual and, while he could still tone down "wacky", a low key Black proves that, when not eating camera, he can still be quite endearing.
Love, Actually meets House Swap, it's overlong, predictable and cornily sentimental (wait for the two cute moppets) while Meyers' industry winges feel incongruous. But there's undeniably much oestrogen-friendly enjoyment to be had.
Plus a record store scene which, as Miles gives Iris an instant hummed guide to classic movie soundtracks, features the year's best and wittiest uncredited cameo appearance.
THE NATIVITY STORY * *
Cert PG 101 mins
I'll assume you know the plot. Dutiful young virginal girl, recently affianced to promising village carpenter finds she's been impregnated by God, the pair of them journey to husband's birthplace for a census, baby's born in a stable as shepherds and wise men come to visit, before fleeing neurotic tyrant's edict to kill all male children.
It's been told before, it'll be told again.
Rarely though has it been rendered quite as reverently dull as here. Hardly surprising the Pope found a pressing previous engagement when it premiered at the Vatican.
Uninspiringly directed with an eye for location and some period socio-economic spicing but little else, after gritty melodramas Thirteen and Lords of Dogtown, Catherine Hardwicke seems a wilfully odd choice.
Or perhaps not, there are, after all, vague teen in crisis connections.
Certainly, taking its cue from Luke's account, there's an attempt to explore the secular relationship between Mary, initially resentful at the arranged match and apprehensive about reactions to her pregnancy, and an understandably sceptical older Joseph who opts to stand by her rather than have her stoned to death.
There is though, unlike the original, no whisper of divorce.
Even so, it's never more than superficial, not much helped by (an ironically now pregnant and unwed) Keisha Castle-Hughes who, so expressive in Whale Rider, here gets to merely vary the furrowing of her brow to denote whatever internal emotions she's experiencing.
Elsewhere performances rarely rise above your average amdram nativity production, though Ciaran Hinds does slice the sacrificial ham pretty thick as Herod.
And let's not dwell on the dread-free literal interpretation of the Angel Gabriel's visitation, looking like a mildly radioactive Cat Stevens.
It says much that the best thing is the three bickering Magi who, more the Three Stooges than the three Wise Men, provide the comic relief Matthew's Gospel was so remiss as not to include. It'll attract initial interest from the devout but, stodgily earnest and painfully slow, it's unlikely that word of God, let alone word of mouth, is going to detract anyone else from the true Christmas message of crass consumerism and spectacular overindulgence.
THE US V JOHN LENNON * * *
Cert15 99 mins
Back at the height of Vietnam, Lennon and Yoko Ono embarked on a series of peacenik stunts, the Bed-In amongst them, and released Give Peace A Chance and Happy Christmas (War is Over).
Even given his friendships with radicals like Abbie Hoffman and Black Panther Bobby Seale, you might think it was hardly a threat to American national security. Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover felt otherwise.
Consumed with paranoia, they implemented wire taps and surveillance and, seized on a dope bust in England, hatched a plot to try and have Lennon deported as an undesirable. They failed.
Lightly bookended with before and after notes, it's those years that provide the focus for this revealing documentary. Produced with the blessing of Ono, who released much unseen archive material, and punctuated with relevant songs, it's made up of a mix of period newsreel footage and interviews (including the famous confrontation with New York Times writer Gloria Emerson patronisingly calling Lennon "dear boy" as he argues the artist's role in politics) and contemporary talking heads offering recollections and observations.
There's naturally pro-Lennonites such as John Sinclair (against whose imprisonment for dope possession the ex-Beatle campaigned), Leon Wildes (the attorney who fought the deportation order), Seale, and Ron Kovic alongside political and social commentators like Walter Cronkite, Vidal Gore and George McGovern offering their views on the administration's witch hunt.
But, while hardly intended as editorial balance, it's interesting to also hear from Watergate conspirator G.Gordon Liddy, a lone voice defending the actions taken to eject Lennon from the country.
There's holes (barely any reference to the controversial Some Time In New York City, no mention of the low profile five years before his murder or why, other than the birth of Sean and the acquisition of a Green Card, he lost interest in radical protest); but it remains both a fascinating portrait of Lennon at his highest profile and a telling comment on the gulf between the way America's youth protested Nixon and its lame response to Bush.