There is some precedence for being genuinely excited about “Happy Feet Two” (yes, the number is spelled out). For one, the original film, 2006’s “Happy Feet,” was more slyly subversive than a movie about tap-dancing penguins has any right to be, with a strong thematic undercurrent that championed not only individualism but, more boldly, atheism. Plus, director George Miller, who co-directed the original (with Warren Coleman and Judy Morris) assumes chief creative control this time around, has a history of whacked-out sequels, having not only crafted the glorious “Mad Max” flick “The Road Warrior,” but also the darkly hued follow-up to the sunny Best Picture-nominated “Babe,” the altogether unclassifiable “Babe: Pig in the City.” Plus, the trailers for “Happy Feet Two” promised a subplot about a pair of shrimp-like crustaceans (voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt) on a journey of their own, which is pretty fucking weird. Sadly, though, “Happy Feet Two” is neither as visually inventive or politically in-your-face. Like many of its feathered stars, the sequel feels stuck, motionless, and terribly cold.
The film opens on a crowd pleasing note – it’s the time of the annual penguin mating dance, and true to the original film, the penguins show each other what they’ve got via elaborate song-and-dance numbers set to contemporary, “Moulin Rouge!“-like mash-ups. (Covered/interpolated/cute-ified in this number: Prince, Basement Jaxx, and Justin Timberlake, among others.) Our hero from the first film, Mumble (Elijah Wood), and his partner Gloria (Pink, subbing for the original’s Brittany Murphy), now have a fuzzy little son named Erik (Elizabeth Daily), who lacks his mother’s singing ability and his father’s fancy footwork. He feels like an outcast, and searches for guidance in a nearby colony overseen by Lovelace (Robin Williams, back for more). It’s here that he sees Sven (Hank Azaria), a svelte Swedish puffin posing as a “flying penguin,” and this is where the movie flashes some of that anti-organized religious streak that made the first film sizzle. Sven is clearly a false prophet, very literally, since he isn’t really a penguin. But a lot of this line of thinking is either diluted or tossed aside completely.
Instead, after Mumble comes to retrieve his son and they make their way back to their own colony (a short distance away), they find that their loved ones have been cut off, thanks to a giant jutting glacier, all milky blues and greens, that has left the penguins without a way out. While the central questions remain rich with dramatic potential (How will the penguins in the valley survive? Will Mumble and Erik make it back to Gloria?), it becomes very apparent that this was a wrong move – it essentially turns “Happy Feet Two” into an anthropomorphic penguin version of “The Mist” (or to use a more literary Stephen King reference, his recent, mammoth novel “Under the Dome,” about a small town trapped under an invisible bubble).
Interspersed with all of the calamity is the story of Will and Bill, two identical krill who break apart from their swarm (a kind of pinkish typhoon of oceanic life) and embark on an existential journey. They want to elevate themselves in the food chain through sheer force of will, and watching these two crustaceans, who are incredibly faithful, design-wise, to their real world counterparts (including being able to see their small reddish heart strobe inside their exo-skeletal bodies) suffer through metaphysical conundrums is increasingly bizarre. The two storylines never reconcile themselves until the very end of the movie, and are connected by the loosest of thematic threads (something to do with the interconnectedness of life on earth… or something). To be honest, the krill sections are livelier and more electrically strange than the stuff with the penguins, which often sags under its own dour seriousness.
Since the penguins don’t have anywhere to go (half of our characters are stuck in a pit, half are outside the pit looking down at the others), the film grinds to a halt. There is no momentum to the story since none of the characters can go on any kind of journey. They’re landlocked. And so are we. While this wouldn’t be a huge deal if the movie tried to reach beyond its physical boundaries, to tell a larger story, possibly about the effects of humanity on the penguins’ tranquil Antarctic kingdom. But the movie is strangely devoid of any kind of message, simple or otherwise, and although there are some references early on to the unnatural “greening” of some of the glaciers, there’s very little elsewhere. The first film was unafraid to wedge satiric commentary into a movie known primarily for its adorableness; this film could have used more (or any) of that.
Which isn’t to say “Happy Feet Two” is a complete wash. The character animation, by Animal Logic (who made the underrated “Legend of the Guardians“) and Dr. D Studios, is truly gorgeous, even if their commitment to the real animals sometimes makes for less expressive characters, and there are some delightful, non-krill moments, particularly in the we-are-the-world-ish climax, which stresses the power of peaceful cooperative togetherness. While most of the voice work is by-the-book (Williams plays two characters again), Hank Azaria is a hoot as the Swedish puffin, although we kept hoping and praying he’d sing and dance to an ABBA song and were left quite disappointed.
It’s just very hard to really love “Happy Feet Two.” Visually, it lacks the punch of the original, especially with the total-bummer emphasis on charcoal grays (apocalyptic skies are streaked with sulfuric clouds), and from a narrative standpoint, it moves at a pace that can charitably be called glacial. There’s less singing and dancing, it all seems to have been replaced with worrying and unnatural stillness. It’s hard for a movie to find its groove if its frozen like a block of ice. [C+]