The wondrously eccentric, eco-conscious sensibility George Miller brought to his 2006 penguin-themed toon yields an altogether less remarkable Antarctic adventure in “Happy Feet Two.” Though it retains the buoyant musical stylings and splendid visuals that made its predecessor so distinctive, this chatterbox of a sequel loses its way with a raft of annoying side characters for which the slender narrative framework provides far too indulgent a showcase. That the result feels closer to the antic, fast-talking style of much contempo animation won’t necessarily keep Warners from achieving another family-friendly holiday hit, and 3D ticket surcharges should help counteract less-than-glowing response.
Given that any follow-up to the Oscar-winning “Happy Feet” would be hard pressed to retain the freshness of its penguins-and-pop concept or the chastening impact of its environmental themes, it was perhaps shrewd of returning scribes Miller and Warren Coleman (teaming with scenarists Gary Eck and Paul Livingston) to scale back their ambitions here. “Happy Feet Two” is nine minutes shorter than its predecessor and, absent the sense of showmanship afforded by its stunning 3D imagery and genre-spanning soundtrack, its relatively bare-bones story would seem more appropriate for a direct-to-video quickie than for a bigscreen outing.
Doing little to counter this perception is the script’s abundance of kid-friendly life lessons, most of them dispensed by tap-dancing emperor penguin Mumble (again well voiced by Elijah Wood) for the benefit of his young chick, Erik (Ava Acres). As much a musical misfit as his father was once upon a time, klutzy Erik humiliates himself during one of the penguins’ conformist group medleys and runs away from home.
While Mumble heads out to finds his son, a massive ice-shelf collapse traps the rest of the rookery in an enormous gorge. What ensues is less an epic adventure than an extended problem-solving exercise in which Mumble and Erik attempt to free their community, while Mumble’s sweet-voiced spouse, Gloria (Alecia Moore, aka Pink, replacing the late Brittany Murphy), does her best to maintain calm down below.
The rescue mission, alas, can succeed only with the help of friends from neighboring Adelie Land, who conspire to turn “Happy Feet Two” into a wearying parade of foreign accents and showboating vocal turns. The standout here is Richard Carter, oozing menace as a surly elephant seal; the other thesps generally take their boisterous cues from Robin Williams, again doing double duty as Latin-lover type Ramon and wacky guru Lovelace.
Particularly irritating are Will and Bill the krill (Brad Pitt, Matt Damon), a noisy, wisecracking crustacean duo stuck in a parallel storyline that plays like so much underwater filler. The gap between visual and verbal sophistication could scarcely be more pronounced here, as the krill’s lightly speckled bodies rate among the film’s most intricate, photorealistic creations.
And then there’s the Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria), an itinerant Swedish puffin with the show-off charisma of a revival-tent preacher. Accordingly, Miller and co-directors David Peers and Eck at times push the musical numbers toward the uplifting highs of a secular gospel service, an approach that works insofar as the film’s episodic subplots serve to illustrate a set of easily digestible morals: If tots haven’t yet grasped that bullying is bad, being different is OK, and even the smallest being can shape the fortunes of all, rest assured that “Happy Feet Two” leaves little room for doubt.
The uninhibited musical sensibility remains admirable and infectious; while the soundtrack could have done without such viral headaches as “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Dragostea Din Tei,” there are rich compensations in Moore’s soulful performance of “Bridge of Light,” a soaring anthem of hope bathed in the glow of the northern lights, and a climactic setpiece that reps perhaps the best cinematic use of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” since “Grosse Pointe Blank.”
In these moments, the film reaches for the sublime and occasionally achieves it, though almost every such instance is immediately followed by a patch of dialogue-heavy downtime. Overall, what “Happy Feet Two” needs more of is silence, a sense of hushed serenity that would allow the viewer to contemplate the majestic beauty of this frozen world and the horror of its potential extinction.
Once again, Miller and his crew prowl these spectacular, endlessly varied landscapes with an extraordinary eye for detail, the swooping camera and fluid cutting combining to produce thrilling shifts in scale and perspective; the immersive effect is further enhanced by artful, unobtrusive (if not entirely essential) 3D. The motion-capture rendering of the penguins’ movements is as precise and lifelike as ever, though the occasional interpolation of live-action human characters, used so hauntingly in the first film, is repeated less effectively here.