The dancing, singing penguins of Happy Feet return for another dose of eco-themed animation in this sequel from George Miller, which proves two truisms. First, there’s still a lot of mileage in the spectacle of penguins tap, tap, tapping in unison and belting out cover songs. Second, this franchise is not the clarion call to action on climate change that it wants to be.
The star of the first film, Mumble (Elijah Wood), is a father now, struggling to connect with his adolescent son Erik (Ava Acres), who feels misunderstood and marginalized because he can’t dance. For Erik, a surrogate role model of sorts emerges in The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria), a flying penguin who preaches messages of empowerment. After a shifting glacier traps their community of emperor penguins in a vast valley, little Erik will need all the confidence he can muster when he, his dad, and two of his friends are called upon to save the day.
Happy Feet Two offers an impressive vision of the Antarctic expanse, with its outsized predators, endless snow-packed tundra, and perfect storm of natural wonders. Miller’s vision wows in 3D, often functioning as an animated version of one of those science center nature spectacles. As the camera glides over the peaks and valleys of this foreboding southern world, you’re swept up in the danger inherent in such a primal landscape.
Yet, while the first movie offered the genuinely unsettling spectacle of Mumble confined in an aquarium and terrified by human visitors, this sequel restricts the protagonists to their Antarctic home. The existential threat posed by the dual obstacles of overfishing (a bigger theme the first time around) and climate change is less deeply felt, as the movie settles into rather ordinary coming-of-age adventure territory.
The father-son stuff is dealt with haphazardly. Mumble is still a straitlaced bore and Erik is so cuddly, so fluffy, that he’s hard to take seriously. He’s less a full-fledged character than a stuffed animal brought to life. In its focus on those two less-than-scintillating characters, the movie manages to waste the talents of master vocalists Azaria and Robin Williams (returning as Mumble’s friend Ramon and a penguin guru named Lovelace).
At the end of the day, though, Happy Feet Two works because the prospect of penguins singing covers hasn’t lost its appeal. You’d have to have a heart made of stone, for example, to not smile when Erik and two baby seals begin an impromptu rendition of “Under Pressure.” Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation,” heard earlier in the film, might have never sounded better.
The cuteness factor, when combined with the awe-inspiring computer-rendered landscape, propels the movie through its innocuous conventions. Forget the environmentalist stuff; the notion that problems can be solved through song and dance, which is the real message of Miller’s franchise, is a resonant one that’s skillfully portrayed.
The Upside: You really can’t argue with singing and dancing penguins.
The Downside: Mumble and Erik are boring characters and the father-son drama is less than compelling.
On the Side: Pink replaces the late Brittany Murphy as the voice of Gloria, Mumble’s wife and Erik’s mom.