When George Miller (Babe, Mad Max) delivered the first Happy Feet on this weekend in 2006, it was, and remains, an ungainly mix of singing-penguin novelty and serious-issue ambition. It was, though, a massive box-office hit, and so we find ourselves greeted with Happy Feet Two, a sequel that follows in the original’s footsteps on a more reasonable scale while sparing audiences an emotional ambush.
In the first film, Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) was ostracized for failing to find a mate through song before saving the day with his then-unorthodox dance moves. Now, Mumble and Gloria (Pink, replacing the late Brittany Murphy) have raised a son, Erik (Ava Acres), who can’t yet get the hang of either talent and thusly flees the colony out of embarrassment. He follows would-be smooth operator Ramon (Robin Williams) back to his clan, further enticed by news of the first flying penguin, Sven (a charming Hank Azaria).
Unaware that a puffin and a penguin aren’t exactly the same thing, Erik now has dreams of taking flight, falling for this new guy’s new-age wisdom (along the lines of “If you can dream it, you can do it!”) just as everyone else does ... except for Mumble. He’s left alone outside the groupthink once more, and after a glacier entraps every other emperor penguin -- Gloria included -- in their home, Mumble becomes a literal outsider as well, solely responsible for feeding his brethren and trying to find them a way out.
Miller establishes the stakes without exploiting the perils of our fluffy leads to the same extent as the first film’s hallucinations-while-in-captivity scenario, and all the while, the wisecracks come in faster and funnier than before. (There are also more snot- and poop-minded gags than ever before, but it’s a small price to pay for a heartier amount of laughs.) We’re offered a seemingly unconnected subplot about Will and Bill (Brad Pitt and Matt Damon), pun-prone krill who tear themselves away from the swarm and attempt to work their way up the food chain. The zest with which Pitt doles out lines like “I want to chew on something with a face!” even elevates groan-worthy wordplay like “I’m one in a krillian” and “Goodbye, krill world,” while Damon’s relationship with his character is developed into a quasi-bromance (or maybe something more) that should sail right over the heads of kids without the help of 3-D glasses.
Between the rendering of sweeping Antarctic landscapes and more demanding character physiology (one can see the flittering hearts of the krill beneath their translucent shells), the animation looks as gorgeous as ever, and the musical elements take the same jukebox medley tack as before; we’re treated to everything from “Rhythm Nation” to “Rawhide,” with “Under Pressure” serving as an apt capper. What’s more is that humans -- while present -- are generally spared finger-pointing in spite of evident climate change causing the initial glacier disaster, and the climactic collaboration necessary to the penguins’ survival is a direct correlation to their fate, rather than stirring mysterious humans the world over into a bird-saving frenzy, upending the first film’s pat messages of individualism by making a compelling argument for communal teamwork.
Thus, its uplift, however familiar, feels relatively earned when compared to the struggles and struggles and struggles put upon Mumble before. The ambition of Happy Feet Two may be smaller, and some might argue safer, than that of its predecessor, but the effect is ultimately more satisfying (not to mention tonally stable) as a result.