The original Happy Feet won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, and it was well-deserved. Not only did it look fantastic, but the simple character arc, about embracing your individuality, was complemented by documentary-style musings on Antarctic life and a clear talking-point takeaway for parents about the ills of overfishing. So how does its sequel Happy Feet Two stack up? As far as the graphics go, time has been kind to the franchise. Its look -- from beautiful wide shots of bustling undersea life to the jiggle of an overweight penguin's belly to the tiny beating heart of a kill to crystalline chunks of snow -- is awe-inspiring.
Its story, on the other hand, feels like something from the mouth of a mother penguin: a less-fresh regurgitation of the original.
The most surprising aspect of Warner Bros.' Happy Feet Two is that most viewers won't really understand the characters if they haven't seen the first film (at least, not in a way that resonates). I brought a friend who hadn't seen Happy Feet, and, although she could follow the narrative, she was confused by a few key moments, such as the introduction of Lovelace (voiced again by Robin Williams) and the connection of Mumble (Elijah Wood reprising his role) to the rest of the group. The setup seems like an elaborate excuse to dip into song and dance medleys – there’s hardly explanation, or even mention, of the original film’s “heartsongs.” While Happy Feet was an excellent way to introduce kids to classic songs, this version takes a more mainstream turn. (Think Justin Timberlake's "SexyBack," with "fuzzy" replacing "sexy"; I weep for the future. Also: I blame you, Glee.)
We're shown that Mumble and Gloria (voiced by Pink) now have a son Erik (E.G. Daily). Unlike his dad, Erik can't dance. And unlike his mom, he doesn't have a natural affinity for singing (although he can, as evidenced by a perplexing warbly and maudlin solo). Erik is an outsider still struggling with his place in the world, and Mumble is at his wit's end trying to parent him. When Erik bands with his pals -- among them Atticus (son of Seymour, voiced by rapper Common) -- they encounter Lovelace's newest draw: a mysterious character named Sven (Hank Azaria), who can fly. Mumble leaves the penguin colony behind to find his son, but, once the group returns, he discovers a new threat has befallen penguin kind.
As with the first Happy Feet, Happy Feet Two broaches environmental subjects and incorporates live-action humans. Oil spills and global warming/the melting of polar ice caps are the name of this game, but the sequel can't seem to stick to an idea. The role of humans is more clear-cut in the first film, whereas in Happy Feet Two, they're portrayed as heroes one moment, foes the next, helpless and almost apathetic the next, until the lesson ultimately seems to be: Despite the damage humans are doing to the planet, wild animals can band together to help themselves! That's not exactly what we want kids to walk out thinking, and I don't believe director George Miller intended it. The movie just doesn't have a focus; it introduces more activist ideas and characters than it knows what to do with. Where the first film cut straight to the point by following Mumble, Happy Feet Two veers in several directions, and its lessons are about as emotionally wrought as its phraseology (trite lines like, "Every obstacle is an opportunity" and, “If you want it, you can will it -- if you will it, it will be yours" flow like water from a melting iceberg).
Speaking of veering in directions, one of those paths was admittedly delightful. The best story in Happy Feet Two, and one that begs for its own spinoff, is that of rogue krill Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon). The chemistry between the two is a joy to watch as they break away from their swarm and share a hilarious adventure (with the most cohesive lesson of the film).
Voice acting seems a somewhat overcompensating art. It can't be as easy to impart emotion and inflection when you aren't working with your face and body, and the separation between seasoned actors (Damon, Pitt, Williams) and relative newbies (Pink, Common) becomes abundantly clear as the narrative progresses.
That leads me to Pink: Her voicing is the weak link, by far (which also brings to light the sad loss of Brittany Murphy, who played Gloria in the 2006 film). Where Murphy had spunk, timing and energy, Pink contributes only a one-note woodiness to the role. She was clearly brought on to sing, and she does so formidably (although the sentiment of her mid-movie solo is pretty much lost thanks to the new-found apathy for her character). Williams is fun voicing Lovelace and the perpetually horny Ramon; he's in his element and he serves his purpose dutifully. Azaria works hard as Sven, but I wish I could say the same about his character arc. Anthony LaPaglia is back as Boss Skua, menacing and goofy as always, but (sadly) with much less screen time.
Although Happy Feet Two offers very little in the way of enlightenment, story-wise, I should reiterate that it's certainly a feat of animation. One flashback scene, set in black and white with only pops of color, stands out in particular as a truly glorious, dark, cinematic moment. I wish the rest of the movie's elements came together as well, but, ultimately, every cringe-worthy line of dialogue or perplexing turn of events was tempered by the three little girls in front of me, who -- leaning forward in their seats, rapt -- vacillated between dancing along with the songs and whispering awed exclamations of, "Wooooow!" Happy Feet Two doesn't pack the succinct goal and emotional punch of the first film or, say, Up, The Iron Giant or How to Train Your Dragon, but if you’re only interested in the visuals, it's sure something to watch -- through your own eyes, or vicariously through those of your child.
Happy Feet Two opens Friday nationwide.