REVIEW: 'Happy Feet Two'

Happy Feet Two is a movie with an earnest goal. It wants to bring the audience back to the musical animated Antarctica of its predecessor, 2006’s Happy Feet. This is a place where penguins sing and dance to covers of pop songs, and cope with the climate changes imposed on them by the mysterious “aliens”, the human race.

For the most part, Happy Feet Two succeeds. It’s a competently-made family film with some funny jokes and beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, the film is too interested in sweeping shots of dancing animals than it is in its own story, and so it wastes a number of chances at the kind of narrative development seen in the previous film.

The film opens with a sequence pulled from a global-warming documentary: a giant iceberg has broken away from the Antarctic continent and is heading towards Emperor Land, the home of hero penguin Mumble (Elijah Wood) and the rest of his community of Emperor penguins. The penguins are busy singing and dancing, as per usual, except for Mumble’s son Erik, who is too shy to either sing or dance.

On a visit to Adelie Land, the home of Mumble’s friend Ramon (Robin Williams), Erik meets the Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria). Sven is a crazed puffin who lost his flock and built a cult of sorts for himself on the South Pole, convincing the penguins he’s the only one of them who can fly. Erik is inspired to learn to fly himself, but his plans are interrupted by the arrival of the giant iceberg, which traps the Emperor penguins behind walls of ice. They all face starvation, so Mumble must find a way to free them.

Happy Feet Two is presented in the same stunning animation as its predecessor. Aspects of the landscape - especially the snow, ice and ocean - are beautiful to look at. The animators at Dr. D Studios have evidently spent hours studying how ice, water and light interact.

Both Happy Feet movies include sequences with live-action actors sharing the screen with digital animals. This was done fairly tastefully in the first film, but in the sequel it felt like the humans were overstaying their welcome. The longer the humans are on screen, the harder it is to suspend one’s disbelief – the movie starts to feel a little too self-aware, or too proud that the quality of the animation permits this kind of scenes.

There’s some great material between a pair of miniscule krill voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon. Will the krill (Pitt) is out to escape the hive mentality of their home swarm, and drags the hesitant Bill (Damon) along with him. They even work in a funny schtick about Bill possibly being gay, an oddly progressive detail for a kids’ film. While the krill have little impact on the fate of the bigger creatures, I can see Dr. D Studios spinning off a series of shorts about these two.

I wouldn’t be able to do Happy Feet Two justice without mentioning the songs. Last time around, we heard versions of songs by Queen, Earth, Wind & Fire, and Stevie Wonder.  Happy Feet Two features music by Janet Jackson and The Rivingtons, along with tunes the Internet-savvy generation will recognize: “Never Gonna Give You Up” by Rick Astley and “Dragostea Din Tei” by Moldavan pop group O-Zone (better known as the “Numa Numa” song).

All the music is rendered in medleys that replace some lyrics with kid-friendly versions where necessary. You’ll chuckle each time a familiar tune pops up, though occasionally it felt like songs would end too soon, as if the movie was in a rush to cram in more sights and sounds.

This is Happy Feet Two’s main problem. It’s trying to pack too much spectacle into a 100-minute feature: a dozen colourful characters, wide shots of dance parties, plus all the cataclysmic sequences of crashing icebergs and roiling storms. This might wash over the kids in the audience, but older viewers will see Happy Feet Two for what it is: a movie with more plot than story.

Characters move from event to event in the movie without fully developing. We don’t really learn what’s fuelling young Erik’s fear of performing – all we know is that eventually he overcomes it with a great musical number sung in the style of an operatic tenor. Meanwhile, Mumble is a father who has trouble getting through to his son – another interesting character detail that the movie doesn’t properly expand on.

There’s a frustrating sense the characters know more about themselves than we do, and they’re not telling. Instead, they sing and dance the movie away, which would be fine if this was a collection of deleted scenes from the first movie. But Happy Feet Two is supposed to progress the stories of these characters, and in its rush to include more of everything else, it forgets about its subjects.

Compounding this problem is the filmmakers’ inability to decide which aspect of environmental destruction they want to focus on. They briefly reference polar ice cap melt and stronger storms, and include shots eerily reminiscent of the Deepwater Horizon blowout and subsequent Gulf oil spill disaster. I guess we’re meant to see that the world is falling apart, and the humans are to blame.

Once again, the sequel is overshadowed by its predecessor, which stuck to a single issue (overfishing) and showed how Mumble’s efforts to alert the humans to the problem helped save the penguins. This time, the humans are allowed to flee to safer waters and the animals mostly figure it out for themselves through – you guessed it – dancing. No humans are held to account, and so the events of Happy Feet Two have little bearing on the world beyond this animated Antarctic discotheque.

While Happy Feet Two sports some fantastic visuals and funny characters, it doesn’t have the storytelling or symbolic clout of the previous film, leaving it with two and a half stars out of four.

Note: I saw Happy Feet Two in 3D, and even though the format has had more success in animated films, the 3D here is only noticeable in a few scenes. See it in 2D if you can!

Have you seen Happy Feet Two? Were you frustrated with the sparse story, or did you only see it to groove to the animated dance numbers? How did you feel about the environmental message in the sequel, compared to the first film? Sound off in the comments section down below, and catch up on my recent reviews:

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