Well, this one certainly marks one of those great (rare) achievements when the sequel outdoes the original at just about every level, and I say that thinking the original HAPPY FEET was pretty entertaining. Then again, director George Miller has a habit of making his sequels often superior to the originals since he directed THE ROAD WARRIOR and BABE: PIG IN THE CITY. Pun intended, the characters in HAPPY FEET TWO seem to have found their footing and created a story that is both inspirational and, at times, utterly surreal.
Our hero from the first film, the penguin Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), now has a family that includes wife Gloria (singer Pink) and a shy young son Erik, who is afraid to follow in his father's dancing footsteps for fear of being laughed at. It probably doesn't help that an early attempt to shuffle results in him landing head-first in ice and then peeing on himself. The themes of being yourself no matter who may mock you are still present in HAPPY FEET TWO, although it is a bit of a mixed message when 10,000 penguins are dancing the same dance yet still making a case for individuality.
Erik and a couple of his penguin buddies run away from home and discover another group of penguins that follow a leader named The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria), who is selling himself as the only one of his species that can fly. The story of how he landed in with these penguins is intertwined with that of his right-hand bird Lovelace (Robin Williams, who also voices Mumble's best friend Ramon). The two were rescued by the crew of a tanker, and in an interesting and effective storytelling decision, Miller uses real, non-animated actors to play the human characters. The animated and real world blend really beautifully here, especially in later scenes where the crew attempts to rescue Mumble's penguin brood after a shift in the melting ice leaves most of them stranded in a deep cavern. (Yes, there's a mild environmental message here; deal with it.)
So what makes HAPPY FEET TWO so surreal? It's the little touches... literally. The standout moments in the movie belong two a pair of krill (named Will and Bill, and played by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt). Their scenes have almost nothing to do with the main storyline, yet these two are fantastic together playing creatures who suddenly realize they don't have to be at the bottom of the food chain and exist solely to be whale food. They break from the swarm and set off on their own adventures attempting to be fearsome, meat-eating predators. I'm convinced old friends Damon and Pitt stood across from each other to record their dialogue because they play off each other so well, and their comic timing is superb. Will and Bill deserve their own movie at least as much as PUSS IN BOOTS did, and I'm starting the campaign now.
Another bizarre and hilarious moment in the film comes when Mumble and Erik attempt to recruit a herd of elephant seals to help them save their fellow penguins. When the elephant seals refuse, Mumble launches into a variation of song from a Puccini opera but with new words about the admiration he feels for his father. The boy's overly dramatic delivery left me all giggly and mystified by the inspiration.
You may notice a few choice voices in HAPPY FEET TWO, including Hugo Weaving, Common, and Sofia Vergara as Carmen, the woman of Ramon's dreams. Honestly though, is Vergara worth having in your movie if you can't see her? HAPPY FEET TWO works best not when it's trying to be funny or even during the fairly simplistic dance sequences. It's at its best when messages of cooperation, getting along despite differences, and, yes, the ever-present theme of striving to make your mark on the world on your own terms are at the forefront of the story. There's nothing preachy about this movie; even the human characters are treated well by Miller and company.
I should mention that the version of the film I saw was surprisingly not in 3D, which seems like a huge mistake because the visuals clearly were made to be seen that way and probably would have looked spectacular. Even still, what you have at 2D is pretty great, and I can easily see this movie becoming a family favorite of both kids and adults. HAPPY FEET TWO is better than the original, sure, but also better than most of the animated fare for 2011.