Happy Feet Two is a baffling experience. Here is a movie that overwhelms us with enough story elements for nine movies and enough environmental messages to keep Al Gore on his toes for the rest of his life. We get messages about the importance of family and friends; messages about the environment; respecting each other; helping each other. We get messages about pitching in, and believing in yourself and celebrating our differences. It is also overstuffed with too many characters, which wouldn’t be a problem except that nearly all of the characters are penguins who, for the most part, all look alike. That’s not good when you have a canvas that is packed with thousands and thousands of them at the same time.
Let me start with the singing and dancing. The movie opens with a musical medley that includes a cover of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” while thousands of Emperor penguins keep in step and sing in unison. Mixed into the medley is some gospel, some pop music and some hip hop. The basic questions are thus: Why are they singing? Who are they singing to? How much time do they take out of their furious search for food to work on their dance routine? These are the same questions that perplexed me about 2006’s Happy Feet. That movie didn’t answer my questions and neither does this one.
Having revisited Luc Jacquet’s wonderful documentary March of the Penguins recently, I have come to fully understand what a difficult and perilous existence the Emperor penguin lives. Think of this: Mother penguin lays an egg that the father penguin has to keep warm while Mother takes a perilous journey across the ice, dodging hungry sea lions in order to get food to bring back home. Papa takes care of the egg and sometimes the temperature drops and the baby inside the egg freezes to death. Added to that is the fact that papa has no idea if mama will ever return home. Based on that set of problems, I would think that keeping their choreography straight might not be on their short list of priorities. If they have to sing, maybe a song like “Food, Glorious Food” might seem more appropriate. Even “Heat Wave” would do.
The story is pretty thin. It involves the penguin Mumbles (voiced by Elijah Wood), the subject of the previous picture, who is now grown up and has a son. His son is named Erik and, like his old man, doesn’t have much rhythm which I guess is kind of a problem when you’re one of thousands of penguins who need to keep in step, after all, you don’t want to ruin the dance routines for whomever might be watching. Erik and a few outcasts travel away from his penguin brothers to find their identity. Out in the ice, they discover another colony of penguins led by a charismatic Swedish Puffin named Sven (voiced by Hank Azaria) whom they all assume is a flying penguin. Sven acts as kind of motivational speaker, especially when the penguins have trouble finding a mate. Actually, Sven is quite creepy-looking, kind of creepy-clown look. His presence is seen early and often. A little of him goes a long way.
While Mumbles is gone – you’ll love this – his brother and sister penguins in the colony become trapped when the shifting glaciers wall them in, leaving them unable to get out to get food. That leads to scenes a mother, father and child penguins teeming and panicking, fearing that they are going to die. Nice, huh? That leads to Mumble, Erik and friends having the join forces with the a group of Elephant Seals (yes, Elephant Seals) to help them get their brothers and sisters out of this predicament. Yeah, uh huh. Okay.
Added into this milieu is a side-plot involving two krill named Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon) who are existentialists and curious to know what lies outside their swarm. They want to venture outside and figure out what lies out in the world just for them. The realization that they are merely food for hungry whales doesn’t fill them with joy. What is really perplexing about these two characters – beside the fact that they sing songs that range from Wang Chung (yes, Wang Chung) to Rick Astley – is their agenda. There’s some meager minor hint that they might be a couple, but you’re left to wonder why the movie even makes that suggestion. Like Sven, they are creatures outside their element, and also like Sven, a little of them goes a long way.
The krill at least distinguish themselves. The penguins, not so much. It is hard to tell one from another, except for one that is sporting a sweater. Penguins have tiny eyes and their mouths are beaks so they can’t express much there. Their squat bodies aren’t exactly able to move around much to accelerate an action scene. They waddle, and so trying to make them do anything more than that is awkward and weird.
The basic message is this: Happy Feet Two is a mess. It can’t find a tone, nor a purpose. It meanders from one thing to the next, from one environmental message to the next without much structure or narrative. When the penguins sing, the musical numbers range from cute to grating. When they talk, they speak in a kind of PSA format about the environment and friendships and celebrating their differences. What perplexed me is that this is a movie mostly aimed at children, but what are they to take away from this? There are so many messages and so much cacophony thrown at them so thick and fast, what are they going to get from this? It sucks to be a penguin, that’s what I got from it. Then again, I got that from March of the Penguins, and I didn’t have to listen to Wang Chung to get there.