We’re still at the bottom of the food chain, with no discernible purpose.
—Will (Brad PItt) the Krill
Let’s take a moment to reflect on the true strangeness of Happy Feet. That it came from George Miller might have seemed dissonant, but only if we’d forgotten that he’d already abandoned Mad Max for Babe. The premise was surely odd by design, a curiously colorful animated riot of emperor penguins who created explosive, island-spanning dance numbers set to Prince tunes and some classic American songbook numbers. (Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman dueting on Prince’s “Kiss” and the like.) The film was all excess, from the ADD-soundtrack to the soft-headed rot about “finding your heartsong” to the big-eyed mugging of those adorable penguins. Like a Pixar film with even less sense of shame, Happy Feet went for the brass ring in nearly every scene and then clobbered you over the head with it.
Five years later, Miller is still walloping audiences with the same tricks, but our calluses from his first effort are dulling the effect. The heartsick little hero of the first film, Mumble (Elijah Wood), is now married to a sharp, tough number named Gloria (Pink) and just a touch more sure of himself than in his childhood. Previously, Mumble’s great crisis to overcome was his inability to hold a tune, something that didn’t play too well in the conformist mass of Emperor penguins huddling together for warmth and a few good tunes at the bottom of the world. He preferred to tap dance, something that didn’t play too well with his dad (Hugh Jackman). A classic prodigal son narrative followed, with Mumble getting pitched out of the community for being too un-penguin.
Happy Feet Two starts out trying to ape this storyline, by showing Mumble’s very young son Erik (Ava Aces) having his own problems. Instead of not being able to sing, Erik can’t really dance in those big revue numbers that the penguins like to put on while singing to still more R&B pop (“Rhythm Nation,” “Shake Your Body”). The filmmakers seem to have an idea of just how repetitious this kind of plot driver is, and so don’t even bother developing it.
Instead of getting cast out, Erik runs away with a couple friends and has a few adventures. They come across Sven, a rattled puffin (Hank Azaria, here for no other reason than to try out a Scandinavian accent) whose land was destroyed by melting ice. Clearly undergoing a kind of post-traumatic stress, Sven peddles a shallow gospel of self-affirmation “(If you will it, it will be yours”). When calving icebergs and shifting glaciers threaten Erik’s home, he turns to Sven’s cheap falsehoods.
There’s a stern critique of easy sloganeering to be found right on the surface of this ostensibly happy happy film. The beloved messiah who gives hope to all the frightened penguins is clearly a fraud right from the start; the penguins don’t realize that Sven isn’t one of them and so aren’t aware of how little they should be impressed by his flying. But with dangers all around, and the dark cloud banks of climate change stacking up, the penguins are easily drawn in.
If this plotline had been tied more concretely to the “it’s all connected” idea put forward by the opening’s ominous narration, Miller might have had something. He even reinforces the think-for-yourself message with a brisk subplot about two krill, adventurous Will (Brad Pitt) and stay-safe Bill (Matt Damon), who break away from their swarm to explore the Atlantic Ocean and imagine switching to being carnivores.
But the thread is too frequently lost and so he movie seems only a crass attempt to rebottle some of the first film’s lightning in a jar quality. The wee runaway Erik should be the film’s dramatic linchpin and yet he registers as little more than an adorable little fluff. All of Savion Glover’s tap choreography and foot-stomping music mash-ups can’t add substance to a film that flits somewhat witlessly from one banal and moralistic slogan to another.
Happy Feet Two doesn’t even know how to play to its own strengths. There was easily room here for another big dance number or two, while the anxious banter between Will and Bill is tangy enough to deserve a larger storyline. If this was Disney, the two of them would have had their own show by now.