'Happy Feet 2' Still Dances to Own Beat
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
For any film lover, the release of 2006's "Happy Feet" was met with a half-askance glance: What was George Miller, the director of "The Road Warrior," doing giving us an animated penguin musical? After viewing that film, though -- with its exuberant songs, giddy dancing, impressive technique in the service of story and a decidedly un-Disney look, feel and ethos -- the question was instead why shouldn't the director of "The Road Warrior" make an animated penguin musical? After all, Miller made "Babe," another great children's film that was refreshingly unsentimental about the animal world. "Happy Feet" was unexpected and new, and if "Happy Feet 2" feels like less of a bold shot of innovation than a second pull of the bow in the general direction of the same target, well, that in and of itself is more than enough.
Mumble (Elijah Wood), who in the first film didn't fit in with his singing brethren due to his horrible voice -- but who soon found a way to shine through his tap-dancing (performed by Savion Glover, no less) -- is now a father, alongside Gloria (pop hit-maker Pink, replacing the late Brittany Murphy). When his penguin community is trapped in an inescapable ravine by a calved glacier -- a glacier let loose by global warming, although that's never quite said -- Mumble has to keep his son Erik (Ava Acres) safe as he looks for help from the local animals, including another group of penguins who are amazed by the arrival of Sven (Hank Azaria), a flying bird who claims to be a penguin. Meanwhile, far under the ice, microscopic water-plankton Will the Krill (Brad Pitt) wants more out of life, even as his friend Bill (Matt Damon) tells him to keep his dreams at a realistic scale ...
There's a lot of plot here, and much moving about, and we never quite get the sense here, as we did in "Happy Feet," of one coherent story being told within a brand-new world. Instead, the sequel feels like it's a slightly disconnected set of stories and characters in that brand-new world. There's some nice subversion of the standard-issue kid-flick tropes, though: Sven's whole "If you dream it, you can do it!" personal philosophy is shown to be no substitute for hard work within a community toward a common goal.
Visually, "Happy Feet 2" is just as striking as the first film, part David Attenborough nature documentary, part Busby Berkeley spectacle. The sight of photo-realistic penguins dancing, and singing, LL Cool J's "Mama Said Knock You Out" is a bit ... odd, but the fun and the feathers of it all are accepted soon enough. (Will and Bill also have great visual design: accurate scientifically, but with a touch of wide-eyed eagerness that makes them feel human.) There are perils and chases (Mumble uses a leopard seal's hungry fury to accomplish a goal he can't) and baritones and basses.
Wood and Moore's vocal work is excellent. As for the supporting cast, I can't tell if, these days, Robin Williams is the poor man's Hank Azaria or if Hank Azaria is the poor man's Robin Williams. Either way, Azaria's mock-Scandinavian bravado works (Sven is a puffin, not a penguin, and living a lie), while Williams' awkwardly ethnic bird voices do not. There are only two poop jokes, and the 3-D is spectacular, swirling, swarming masses of animals in the majesty of the Antarctic snows or the cold depths of its seas. "Happy Feet 2" may not be blazing a trail as smoothly and distinctively as the original film did, choosing instead to waddle along in footsteps the first film already left, but you and your kids will find it a pleasant enough journey.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com,
Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was
also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now
lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.