The first Happy Feet stunned us all when it not only saw unprecedented US-Australian collaboration, the likes not seen since the days of the Second World War, but by winning the Academy Award for Best Animated Picture in 2006. Riding on a wave of good will towards penguins, particularly the dancing kind, the film spiked the ticket sales at aquariums the world over. Of course, pickings were slim that year, and its competition was Pixar’s vanity project Cars and the wholly forgettable Monster House. So in a year when Rango, Winnie the Pooh and Puss in Boots could all proudly stand on their own paws and claws, the flightless birds have returned with more or less the same as last time.
Mumble (Elijah Wood) and Gloria (Pink, replacing the late Brittany Murphy), having overcome the difficulties of the first film thanks to the revelation of the humans (or “aliens” as the penguins call them), now have a son of their own, Erik (Ava Acres). Unwilling to dance, he feels the urge to run away after an embarrassing attempt at hoofing. Together with his friends and the lovesick Ramon (Robin Williams), Erik runs off to Adélie-Land, where the inhabitants have all fallen under the spell of a mysterious “flying penguin” called Sven (Hank Azaria). However, when disaster strikes the colony, everyone must band together to save the penguins and restore their collective feet to a state of happiness.
Where director George Miller’s first Happy Feet had a unique charm to it, and an unexpectedly strong environmental message, Happy Feet Two is content to deliver much of the same. Opening with a familiar set-up of a colony that appears to have learned nothing and continues to shun those who are differently abled, the legion of writers including Miller himself, Gary Eck, Warren Coleman and Paul Livingston (aka Flacco) seem content to retread much of the same ground as the first film. With more stars than there are in the heavens thrown at the soundboard, including Sofía Vergara (TV’s Modern Family) in a role so small it could have been played by a name less attractive to a marquee, very little manages to stand out. There is, of course, the exception of a bizarre sub-plot feature Will and Bill the Krill, voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon respectively, in a voyage of self-discovery and bromance that ultimately intersects with the main story. These segments are so good that you almost wish that their film had been made instead of a Happy Feet sequel. That would have been krilliant.
The animation itself has technically improved over the last half-decade, with the details sometimes staggeringly beautiful. The krill swarm is absolutely majestic, and reminiscent of some of the best moments in Finding Nemo or a David Attenborough documentary. Similarly, the individual detail on the penguins and the wonderfully Australian character of Bryan The Beach Master (voiced by Richard Carter) look good enough to cuddle. Miller’s Dr. D Studios, who will also be working on Mad Max: Fury Road with the director, takes full advantage of the leaps and bounds in fur technology over the last few years, but the endless landscape of black and white penguins on a white background only gives them so much to work with.
There are musical numbers and dance sequences, some to familiar songs and other to songs that should remain forever sealed in ice, such as 2004’s one-hit wonder piece of Eurotrash “Dragostea din tei”, which was informally known as “The Numa Numa Song”. The dance numbers are uninspired, and the soundtrack is caught between wanting to be a crowd-pleasing jukebox musical and a serious contender for its original songs from performed by Pink and E.G. Daily. The rousing conclusion that brings Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” to the height of its majesty almost makes up for the rest of the lacklustre mix, and the central theme of the world working together as one that this scene engenders may almost bring a tear to your eye. Sadly, the sequence feels tacked on in order to force a moral conclusion out of a shameless cash-grab, and one that reminds us of how good it could have been.
Happy Feet Two is released in Australia on 26 December 2011 from Roadshow Films.