By the thousands, Emperor penguins cavort through a foot-stomping, fin-shaking rendition of Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation.” For those who wonder why the Antarctic ice caps are melting, the explanation could be that these tuxedoed terpers, pounding their frozen dance floor with precise fury, are just too darn hot. Some penguins improvise solos; others hit the hefty downbeat in perfect unison, like squat Rockettes. This e-pluribus-unum ethic, of individual eccentricities that help stoke communal elation, serves as both the theme of Happy Feet Two and the key to its 97 minutes of nonstop joy. As director George Miller could tell you, any animated feature requires the creativity and technical expertise of perhaps a thousand people; all of them can contribute if they dance to the same tune.
The original Happy Feet, which in 2006 surged as part of the Great Penguin Wave (March of the Penguins, Surf’s Up and what were they doing in Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa?), earned quite the worldwide box-office bundle and was the last non-Pixar film to win an Oscar for Best Animated Feature. A do-your-own-thing morality play, it introduced Mumbles (voiced by Elijah Wood), the only non-singing member of an Emperor chorale, who goes on a journey to prove that a voice isn’t the only glorious musical instrument a penguin can possess. By the end of the first film he had converted the colony to his happy-feet gospel. Instead of belting out pop tunes, American Idol-style, they could star on Dancing with the Stars — and wouldn’t you vote for a Mumbles tap number over a Ricki Lake adagio?
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It’s clear from their “Rhythm Nation” opening that the Emperors have embraced Mumbles’ message. They never danced; now they all do. They might almost be the easily swayed barnyard creatures of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, except that the penguins’ credo is “No legs good, two legs better.” In the new script, by Miller, Warren Coleman, Paul Livingston and co-director Gary Eck, Mumbles and wife Gloria (Alecia Moore, aka Pink, replacing the late Brittany Murphy) have become parents, and the defiant excursions of our hero’s youth must give way to loving discipline. Wouldn’t you know, their young’un, Erik (Ava Acres), is choreophobic. When Mumbles says, “There are plenty of reasons to dance,” Eric wants to know, “What’s mine, pa?” He’ll find that reason soon enough: saving the penguin planet.
For long stretches, Happy Feet Two seems sitcom-built, with what TV comedy writers call the A and B stories. Except that this movie has A, B and C subplots. A: Erik treks off on his own journey of self-discovery and encounters Bryan, the grouchy elephant seal (Richard Carter). B: A couple of microscopic krill named Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon), fan off from their swarm because Will, though indistinguishable from the rest of his kind, believes he has a unique mission: “I’m one in a krillion!” C: After his own abduction on a Russian trawler — or as he calls it, an “alien ship” — Lovelace (Robin Williams) brings back a remarkable creature: a flying penguin. Red-beaked and with an El Brendel Scandinavian accent, Sven (Hank Azaria) is a motivational speaker in the Tony Robbins or Herman Cain mold. “If you want it, you must will it,” he proclaims. “If you will it, it will be yours,’ and then whispers the small print: “SvenTHINK™. All rights reserved, copyright me.” The ladies love Sven, and the colony, which earlier didn’t think it should dance, now believes it can somehow fly.
More than any other major filmmaker, Miller has devoted his career to franchises. Of the eight features this former ER-room physician has directed, six are episodes in the Mad Max, Babe and Happy Feet series. (The other two movies: The Witches of Eastwick and Lorenzo’s Oil.) Max, Babe and Mumbles might not seem natural siblings, but consider: the post-apocalyptic road warrior, the pig that believes it’s a sheep and the penguin with rebellious notions of showmanship are all outsiders bucking conventional wisdom at the risk of their lives or their standing in the community. “There’s no difference,” the director insisted in 2007, “between Happy Feet, Babe and Mad Max.”
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Until now, Miller’s sequels have grown weirder or murkier. Babe: Pig in the City yanked the pig out of his farm of comfort and into the dystopian Metropolis. Happy Feet Two couldn’t be that dark — it’s hard to do noir in all-white Antarctica — and doesn’t try. The most jarring image in the first film, of Lovelace strangled in a six-pack ring, isn’t topped here, Miller does allude to the encroachment of villainous humanity’s global warming: when a snow mass melts and breaks off and the Emperors’ land becomes an island prison, an albino Alcatraz. But this time the vibe is perkier, and the seeming grab bag of clever vaudeville sketches gels into a message of community action. If everyone dances together — penguin and puffin, mammoth elephant seal and miniature krill — something good will happen.
Everything that happens in Happy Feet Two is good-to-great. Azaria plays to perfection the super-salesman who may be as deluded about his powers as his gullible customers are; and Pitt and Damon, the Ocean’s Eleven dudes, reveal unsuspected comic chemistry as the voices of micro-shrimp. (Where’s Clooney?) But even if these performances don’t tickle the best parts of you — in which case, get a humor transplant — you should be knocked agog by the most seductive color scheme of any 3-D movie, yes, including Avatar. From the first droplet, looking like a turquoise ornament on God’s Christmas tree, to the oranges and magentas of the sun setting on vistas of ice, the movie is swathed in visual rapture.
The aural carpet is also smartly woven, with pop songs that propel the soaring mood. And toward the end, Eric abruptly enlarges the film’s musical vocabulary by launching into his own updated version of “E lucevan le stelle,” the aria that Tosca’s lover Cavardossi sings while awaiting execution in the Puccini opera. It cues a thrilling escalation of the movie’s emotional stakes, at once violent and comic, tragic and magical.
The number proves that Miller is not content to duplicate the pleasures of his first penguin film; he dares to go bigger, deeper, higher — happier. And it should guarantee that moviegoers will waddle out of this sublime sequel on happy feet, too.