Typically, sequels to successful films set out to play it safe by copycatting their predecessors, achieving a sense of progress largely by hitting the familiar notes harder and louder. Not so Happy Feet Two, which outright sets out to be the anti-Happy Feet. Where the first film told a simple story in an ambitious way, the sequel breaks several complicated themes down into simple setpieces. Where the first film followed familiar tropes, the second one sets out to undermine them. And above all, where Happy Feet touted the importance of confident individualism, Happy Feet Two laughs that attitude off at every turn in favor of messages about the value of community.
As Happy Feet Two starts, Antarctica’s emperor-penguin population has happily incorporated massive dance numbers into what used to be a song-only world, though they’re still prone to pop medleys that sprawl from Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” to Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack,” as reinterpreted by a chorus of baby penguins. (“We’re bringing fluffy back…”) Happy Feet protagonist Mumble (Elijah Wood) and his love interest Gloria (Pink, taking over for the late Brittany Murphy) have a chick of their own, Erik (Ava Acres), but he’s hesitant about dancing, to Mumble’s dismay. From there, the plot hiccups through a number of segments, touching on Erik’s infatuation with the New Age-y self-help tips of what he thinks is a flying penguin (Hank Azaria), but eventually focusing on a crisis that might wipe out the emperor penguins. Meanwhile, in the sea, a tiny krill named Will (Brad Pitt) breaks off from his vast swarm and decides to remake himself as a vicious predator, while his anxious friend Bill (Matt Damon) tries to talk him down.
Returning director George Miller (Mad Max, Babe: Pig In The City) doesn’t handle the big picture here as well as he did with Happy Feet; the episodic segments seem lumpy, overstretched, and disconnected in the first half, and the focus on body functions, bad puns (“Goodbye, krill world!”), and Robin Williams’ half-baked ethnic accents curdles the humor. But the film handles the smaller scale superbly, particularly in little visual details, like the shifting reflection of a krill walking on snow. More significantly, the film shows rather than tells. Mumble never overtly explains his fears of parental inadequacy, and never gets a big validating dad moment, but his awkward vacillation between nurturing Erik and giving him space is clear, as is his gradual growth into his role. Oil slicks and global warming play roles in the plot, but no environmental message is explicitly mentioned. The film never lays out its pro-community sentiments in a speech, it just shows over and over how there’s strength in numbers and cooperation, and even lets the adults find the solutions, instead of having Erik save the day. (Similarly, it hooks Erik on magical “believe in yourself and your dreams will come true” thinking, then drops that theme in favor of pragmatic experimentation, perseverance in the face of failure, and simple hard work.)
It’s fairly fascinating to see which cliché-traps Happy Feet Two falls into, and which it deftly avoids: This is a film smart enough to set up atypically nuanced, supportive relationships between Erik and his baby-penguin friends, and dumb enough to regularly lean on repetitive broad physical comedy. It quotes cheesy recent pop hits like any modern animated film one moment, then rewrites an aria from Tosca the next. In some ways, it’s a more grown-up story than Happy Feet, with more complicated messages delivered in subtler ways. Then again, it delights in graphic depictions of birdshit, a penguin pissing himself, and flying snot-bubbles popping out of a character’s nose. When it comes to CGI kids’ movies, adult viewers can’t have everything.