With Happy Feet Two, director George Miller has repeated the experience of the Babe series of movies. Babe and the original Happy Feet took a concept that was as simple as it was absurd (a sheep-herding pig in the former, tap-dancing penguins in the latter) and turned it into a winning film through sheer force of conviction. Audiences were won over because both movies openly acknowledged their preposterous central concepts but fully committed to them anyway. However, like Babe: Pig in the City, Happy Feet Two trades focus for ambition, aiming to be bigger and broader in every dimension at the expense of the focus that made their predecessors successful. The end result is a movie that is definitely bigger and more visually impressive, but which is nowhere near as successful. Happy Feet Two can be rather entertaining at times, but sequels automatically invite comparison to their predecessors and in that comparison, Happy Feet Two falls well short.
Plotwise, Happy Feet Two is just a mess. Happy Feet was about Mumble, an outcast tap-dancing penguin whose terpsichorean skills saved his emperor penguin colony from starvation. In the sequel, Mumble and his mate Gloria have a penguin chick of their own, Erik, who turns out to have two left feet (revealed in a scene that concludes with an incredibly unnecessary pee joke that’s even a little shocking for being so very tasteless). However, the fear that Happy Feet Two will just rehash the self-actualization plot of the first film is unfounded since this movie never shows much interest in Erik or Mumble at all. Partially, this is because the “believe in yourself” theme is so lazily executed that one character just up and tells Erik to do exactly that about a third of the way through the film, as though even the dimmest kids couldn’t figure that out on their own, especially when it seems that this has been the only acceptable theme for any animated kids film out of Hollywood for decades. However, it’s also because the movie just can’t sit still and focus when it comes to plot threads and characters. Almost all of the original cast returns from the original movie, including the band of Adelie penguins led by Ramon (Robin Williams), the mystic rockhopper penguin Lovelace (also Williams), and several supporting emperors from the colony. They are joined by a deceptive puffin named Sven (Hank Azaria), who passes himself off as a penguin who’s learned how to fly; two of Erik’s friends Atticus and Boadicea; a bull elephant seal named Bryan (Richard Carter); a sassy female Adelie named Carmen (a perfectly wasted Sofia Vergara); and a pair of krill named Will and Bill (Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, respectively) seeking to move up the food chain. By the time a plot twist traps the emperor penguin colony with a gigantic a renegade iceberg, all these different plot threads have already snarled and tangled into a giant, unmanageable knot, and the movie isn’t even half over yet.
The first movie might have had a quirky sense of pacing, but everything in it was about Mumble and his quest to find his niche in the world. In contrast, Happy Feet Two seems to be trying to go everywhere at once, to much less effect. To its credit, the final scene of the movie manages to wrap up almost all these plot threads in an impressive and emotionally satisfying way. Unfortunately, the success of the scene just reminds us that the first movie managed to deliver the same emotional payloads in a far more efficient and effective manner. This final scene also finally articulates an overarching theme of “we’re all in this together, whether we know it or not”—a fine theme build a movie around but just not one expressed well enough in the final cut. The breadth of plots and characters is central to this theme, but none of them are ever better than half-baked. Excising several of them would have made for a much stronger film without damaging that underlying theme. Indeed, the only segments that really measure up to the original’s quirky sensibilities are the Will and Bill scenes, with the pair delivering some of the best moments in their dim-bulb philosophizing on existential matters from a krill’s eye view. The two nearly walk away with the movie, definitely getting the biggest laughs (once in something that looks like a parody of the way characters in the first film would burst into pop tunes, and the other in a hilarious one-liner at the very end). They’re successful enough that I wish they had just abandoned the penguins and made the second movie about these two. I get that Happy Feet Two is trying to Say Something, and I think I appreciate the sequel’s underlying message even more than the original’s. The problem is that the message just gets lost in all the surface noise far too often.
Whatever the flaws in the movie’s approach, the bigger, broader, better approach certainly pays off from a technical perspective. Happy Feet Two expands on its predecessor to turn in some impressive crowd shots and some incredibly beautiful animation. The hundreds to thousands of penguins in the original movie have become thousands to hundreds of thousands in this one, with a lot more subtle detailing in their markings and their body language. There is also some beautiful work in bringing Will and Bill the Krill to life (in all their crustacean ugliness) and in Bryan the elephant seal. In this regard, Happy Feet Two does quite well on Blu-ray, bringing out all the subtle details in a richly detailed 1080p image. This is mated to a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack that is similarly detailed, although I can’t say I was as taken by Happy Feet Two‘s musical aspects as by the original. The Blu-ray comes with a surprisingly substantial set of bonus features, starting with an Antarctica featurette with Lil’ P-Nut (who voices the penguin chick Atticus) that details how the real-life behavior of the animals in the film is echoed in their performances. It’s something I’d liked to have seen with the DVD for the original movie, to be honest. A “How to Draw a Penguin” featurette has storyboard artist Tim McEwen showing how to draw Erik, while the “Running with Boadicea” featurette spotlights one of Erik’s friends. I only wish the attention paid to Boadicea’s free-running style were reflected in the character’s near-non-existent screen time. “The Amazing Voices of Happy Feet Two” takes us behind the microphone to the recording sessions, which I was surprised to learn happened “radio style” with all the stars in the studio together, including those who didn’t appear in the same scenes together. It’s a rather amusing featurette, especially for the voice-actor junkies amongst us. A short featurette focuses on Alecia Moore (P!nk), the replacement actor for the late Brittany Murphy as Mumble’s mate Gloria, and her new song for the movie. There are also a trio of sing-along/karaoke music videos and a new CGI Sylvester and Tweety short “I Tawt I Taw a Putty Tat.” It’s also a small thing, but I have to say that the Blu-ray menus may be the best I’ve ever seen for any home video presentation anywhere, allowing you to skip the forced trailers quickly at the start after hitting the “Pop-Up Menu” button, moving you quickly and efficiently through all the options, and shutting off the background music after one go-through rather than making you suffer through an infinite loop of it.
Warner Home Video has taken a page from the Disney Diamond Edition Blu-rays and released a “second screen” app for iOS devices; unlike the Disney version, there is no app for Android devices or website access for desktop or laptop computers. The Happy Feet Two app can sync with the movie via WiFi or through an audio sync, and can also be explored without synching with the movie. Unfortunately, the second screen app is a bit of a bust, since it has precious little content worth paying attention to. It’s fun to see Robin Williams sitting with a bunch of grannies to learn how to knit little sweaters for penguins rescued from oil spills, and there’s a few more videos from the Antarctica featurette with Lil’ P-Nut, but the rest seems to be just karaoke lyrics and mindless mini-games. There is none of the in-depth, behind-the-scenes material that turn the Disney second screen apps into free, multi-media art books. It was also disappointing to find that the first entry seemed to freeze the whole app on my first-generation iPad. The Blu-ray also comes with an UltraViolet digital copy; the multiple accounts required to get it and the reports that it still doesn’t work well with an iPad make me think that it’s an overly complex alternate solution to a problem that’s long been solved. The DVD included in the Blu-ray combo pack contains only the movie with no bonus features.
It’s rather disappointing to see how incredibly undisciplined Happy Feet Two is. It’s scattershot approach only ensures that it isn’t able to build up the same kind of narrative momentum that made the first film as interesting and compelling as it was. I freely admit that I started watching the movie thinking that it was one of the least necessary sequels ever made, and finished it thinking that Miller and the three other credited screenwriters might have made it all work if only they had spent more time throwing things away and simplifying.