There is a tendency to remember the original Happy Feet in a…selective way. It gets looked back upon very favourably, as people remember the singing penguins, great mash-ups in the Moulin Rouge tradition and spectacular dances. But I also remember weird scenes in zoos, preachy messages and a slightly awkward ending where we saw something of an alternate world, in which the whole world goes to see the dancing penguins and as a result does not over-fish the waters of the Antarctic.
It was always, I felt, going to be a hard film for which to make a sequel. And I wasn’t filled with optimism when I saw it announced. Aside from thinking the plot could be problematic, I thought Animal Logic should be concentrating on that Watership Down update. Well, as it turns out, Animal Logic weren’t involved here – director George Miller founded his own animation studio, Dr D, as part of his Kennedy-Miller-Mitchell Films company. Whether he took key personnel with him from Animal Logic I couldn’t say, though this film very capably recaptures the look and movement style of the original. But if he did, I’m sure they’re regretting it – the poor box office performance of Happy Feet 2 has reportedly led to 600 of the studio’s 700 personnel being laid off, with only vague hints at being re-employed in a new KMM studio next year as a silver lining.
Oh, and two of the voice actors from the original film had passed away – one of them a central role.
In spite all of my misgivings, the underperformance and mixed reviews, though, I was quite looking forward to this bit of animation. The musical style was always an attraction, penguins are always going to be cute and it looked like adorable fluffy ones would be put centre-stage. After having seen it, I felt it was uneven, too small-scale and musically lacking, but a sequel that worked and deserves to make a modest profit during its run. Whether or not it really needed to be made I cannot say, but I’m actually rather glad a film with such a totally bizarre final act got a largely conventional sequel.
The film is prefaced by a Warner Bros CGI Looney Tunes cartoon (not the first one either – a Road Runner short played before Legend of the Guardians), setting the old ‘I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat’ song – with the original vocals set to a new score – to modern animation. Cute, but the old Looney Tunes style of violence seems anachronistic and backward now.
The main film was structurally neat: Mumble and Gloria (now played by Pink after Brittany Murphy’s passing) have a little chick called Erik. Erik doesn’t seem to fit into penguin society, comfortable neither singing like Momma nor dancing like Pop, and the first time he tries he embarrasses himself badly. (It’s pretty nasty.) When flamboyant Adélie Ramone sets off for his hometown, Erik, along with two chick friends – a stereotypical English girl and a stereotypical fat African-American boy – tags along. Ramone finds a new chica – and a new face in town, centre of attention: Sven, the penguin who can fly, heads a cult of personality. Mumble goes to fetch the chicks, but Erik is now enamoured of Sven and believes if he can try hard enough, he can do anything, even fly. On the way back, after an encounter with an elephant seal where Mumble proves he’s not useless – but which Erik sees as proof of his faith in Sven – an earthquake traps the emperor penguins. The humans try to help, but a snowstorm and frozen sea prevent them doing too much, and when called on to deliver on his promises Sven is eventually revealed as a fraud – not a penguin but a puffin. Now Mumble must bring everyone together to save his people.
Meanwhile, two tiny krill set off to defy the herd mentality and move up the food chain. They may be confronted with the hopelessness of their cause, but they may also learn a thing or two during the course of their bromance-tinged adventure. The message there seems to be that we should celebrate individuals, and anyone can make a difference – within the system.
The overall structure works well, gives time for nice things like speeches about self-belief and cooperation, spectacular shifts of ice and underwater adventures – and of course musical numbers. The trouble is that there are too many things that seem undeveloped. We have lots of strands set up that don’t really get anywhere – Erik not liking to dance, the krill interacting with the wider world, Sven getting redeemed, Erik learning that while he can have big dreams he is still bound by nature (and cannot fly), Gloria being a loyal mate. Some are just dropped, others seem like they should never have been raised if they’re just dealt with in a cursory way. And we never do see why humans lost interest in dancing penguins.
And the music, despite a superb original belter by Pink that makes her not just a replacement but a real star, is lacking. The opening number is strong, but we saw it in the trailer. The rest doesn’t live up to it, and there’s not much mashup stuff going on. There’s a nice Queen number, but it’s straightforward, and a bizarre moment where Erik, with voice provided by baby Mumble’s original actress with chipmunk effect added, sings a piece from Tosca about her dad being awesome, which is pretty ill-judged. It all lacks the awesome stylistic freedom Mumble’s parents brought to the original.
Voice acting is strong, with Wood still personable and Weaving still hilariously hammy. The kids are all adorable and Brad Pitt and Matt Damon have a lot of fun as the two krill, making a difficult side-story work. Plus even if it feels like someday soon we’ll all turn on Robin Williams for his numerous horrible stereotypical characters, that day isn’t here yet. He’s great.
Visuals are still spectacular and the 3D worked well. Just a shame story and character weren’t quite there.