Warner Bros. // 2011 // 99 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // March 4th, 2012
Every step counts.
"Today is a great victory for defeat."
Once a forlorn adolescent penguin, Mumble (Elijah Wood, The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers) is now happily married to his childhood flame Gloria (Pink, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle) and has a young son named Erik (Ava Acres, Harry's Law). It doesn't take long before Mumble realizes that his son doesn't seem to have much passion for dancing or singing (which of course are the two activities most essential to penguin life), but his efforts to aid Erik seem futile. Meanwhile, Erik finds himself becoming enamored with a new arrival: a strange-looking penguin named Sven (Hank Azaria, The Simpsons) who has the ability to fly.
While Mumble, Erik and a handful of others are visiting a neighboring area, tragedy strikes: an avalanche causes the penguins to become trapped inside their own village. Without the ability to leave and search for food, they'll all soon starve to death. Can The Mighty Sven save the day? If not, will Mumble and Erik be up to the task?
George Miller's Happy Feet offered one of the most unexpected left turns I've seen in an animated movie. The film began as a cheerful tale of singing and dancing penguins before suddenly transforming into a grim, song-free environmental sermon that seamlessly incorporated a large supply of live-action imagery. Though Happy Feet Two never gets quite as dark as its predecessor, it surprises in its own way by gently rebutting some of the messages the original film offered. While Happy Feet was a story about the importance of individuality and finding your own voice, Happy Feet Two is a story about the importance of community and setting aside your own needs and quirks for the greater good. More strikingly, the film serves as sharp counterpoint to the easily digested but mostly empty messages many animated films geared at children have to offer.
How many children's movies have we seen bearing a message along these lines: "If you believe in yourself, you can make it happen." Happy Feet Two's slippery faux-savior Sven offers a similar platitude: "If you want it, you must will it. If you will it, it will be yours." With this philosophy, he's able to persuade numerous penguins (particularly the impressionable young Erik) that they have the potential to fly...if only their belief is strong enough. Of course, Sven is actually a puffin, and the biological makeup of the penguins ensures that under no circumstances will they ever be able to fly. In a manner I found curiously moving, Happy Feet Two underlines the notion that while following impossible dreams is more likely to lead to heartbreak than wild success, you might be able to accomplish some things if you're willing to focus on finding practical solutions and working hard. As you might have guessed, the Sven plot also doubles as a commentary on organized religion, though it's a bit broader and clumsier in that regard. Still, meaty stuff for a family film.
In a way, I suspect that adults are probably going to appreciate Happy Feet Two more than kids will, as the film is most effective as a philosophical exercise. Absurd as that sounds, there's an enormous deal of thoughtfulness sandwiched between the pop tunes and the goofy voices Robin Williams offers. There's a side plot featuring two Krill (voiced by Brad Pitt, Moneyball and Matt Damon, True Grit) which offers a generous supply of goofy puns ("Goodbye, krill world!"), existential humor and Darwinism (one of the characters determines that he's going to undergo some instant adaptation, move up the food chain and start eating seals). It's fun stuff, but these scenes are so preoccupied with offering knowing nudges to older viewers that they nearly forget about the younger ones.
The voice work is solid across the board, with Elijah Wood proving an effective if somewhat unmemorable anchor as the fretful Mumble. Robin Williams mostly manages to avoid indulging his most obnoxious tendencies in his dual roles, while Hank Azaria seems to enjoy playing with his goofy Swedish accent as Sven. Other notable names like Common, Sofia Vergara and Hugo Weaving turn up, but they have so little to do you probably won't notice them. The highlights are undoubtedly Damon and Pitt, who demonstrate splendid comic timing and offer themselves up as prime spin-off material. While I'm not a huge fan of all of the songs this second outing delivers (more on that in a moment), it does offer two strong musical moments of note: an original song (with an infectious minor-key melody by composer John Powell) which is used to introduce Sven, and a cover of the Queen/David Bowie classic "Under Pressure" which is used over the film's climactic scene. The latter is employed so effectively that one suspects the screenwriters used the scene as a starting point and worked backwards from there. It's a spine-tingling movie moment, only topped by the strikingly bittersweet concluding scene (which actually plays a bit like a gentle variation on the closing moments of Take Shelter).
Happy Feet Two (Blu-ray) looks spectacular, allowing viewers to fully appreciate the magnificently detailed animation via a 2.40:1/1080p transfer. Even if the world of Happy Feet hasn't changed much visually (in fact, this second outing somehow seems even more enclosed than the first), it's still a pleasure to observe the distinctive animation (which favors realism over more wildly cartoonish design). Colors have a lot of pop, banding is never an issue, blacks are rich and inky and contrast is superb. Audio is similarly top-notch, with numerous showcase-worthy sequences (again, the "Under Pressure" sequence is just remarkable in this area). Dialogue is clean, the impressively complex sound design is truly immersive and the music simply soars. One minor complaint: Robin Williams' blustery vocals during his musical number sound a little distorted. It's a small blemish in a nearly flawless track. Supplements are mostly comprised of brief, lightweight featurettes geared at younger viewers: "Helping Penguins and Pals," "How to Draw a Penguin," "Running with Boadicea" and "The Amazing Voices of Happy Feet Two." You also have the option to download a similarly kid-centric "Second Screen" app (I'm still not a fan of this gimmicky bonus feature, but to each their own), some sing-a-long sequences, an original CG Looney Tunes short (I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat), BD-Live, a DVD Copy and an UltraViolet Digital Copy.
Oddly enough, the film is at its weakest when it remembers that children are its primary audience, as it seems to overcompensate with amateurish potty humor. During one scene, a frightened penguin dives into the snow and pees at the screen. Sven is constantly blowing snot bubbles, and there's a host of cheap poop jokes. The pop songs -- which were a highlight in the first film -- are largely misfires this time around. The choreography seems less inspired (again, the great "Under Pressure" number is the exception), the vocal performances are technically solid but strangely uninvolving and the arrangements are standard-issue. Honestly, I expected most of the songs to sound better than they would if they appeared on Glee.
Finally, despite the fact that Happy Feet Two contains many elements that I like, it's a spottier experience than the first one. The central story doesn't have a lot of momentum; it feels more like a collection of compelling scenes held together by a somewhat thin plot. The movie is ambitious in a lot of ways, but it seems strangely rushed in others.
While Happy Feet Two certainly has its share of faults, it's by no means a lazy cash-in. This is a memorable movie containing some refreshing thematic ideas and some terrific moments. It's worth digging through the rough patches get to them. Recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 99 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Second Screen
* Short Film
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* IMDb: Happy Feet Two
* IMDb: I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat