Happy Feet Two is both well-intentioned and hard to sit through. It desperately wants to be a good time. In fact it tries over and over again to be fun, but that eagerness to entertain is actually the film’s biggest drawback. In its haste to give viewers a reason to tap their feet, the film fails to give viewers a reason to care. The result feels like a child’s birthday party in which every moment is meticulously planned. In some ways the grandiosity of it all is actually quite impressive, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s hollow and forced.
It’s as if the filmmakers made a list of what people like about animated movies and then belligerently vowed to go bigger. Viewers like goofy, slightly stupid comic relief characters, so Happy Feet Two gives them four. Viewers like an occasional, non-plot relevant song, so Happy Feet gives them what feels like a dozen. Pop culture references, extended scenes of choreographed dancing, human and animal interactions-- this film has it all in spades, which is perhaps why it comes up empty in hearts.
That being said, the animation is top notch, perhaps the best we’ll see this year. The opening in particular is a wonder on the eyes, and the transitions between the water and the snow look natural and effortless. That excellence, coupled with a handful of moments that really do work, prove there is a far better movie hidden somewhere. It’s just trapped beneath an absolute mess of bells and whistles.
Mumble (Elijah Wood) is a happily married emperor penguin. With his wife Gloria (Pink) and young son (E.G. Daily), he’s entirely content with his station in life, at least he would be if his boy felt the same way. Erik is a bit of an outcast. He has friends, but he’s unsure of what makes him special. With his father’s prodding and the help of what feels like a five song montage, he tries dancing, but his two-step ends in urine-stained public embarrassment. Sick of being the object of ridicule, he and his two buddies impulsively follow his uncle Ramon (Robin Williams) on a fishing excursion. Along the way, he meets a charismatic penguin named The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria) who’s taught himself to fly. He tells Erik that with a little determination, he too can soar into the sky.
The advice is a lifeline and a breath of fresh air for the young penguin, but to his father, it’s an absolute disaster. He just wants Erik to be happy with himself, and he doesn’t see how that can happen by fixating on an impossible goal. Looking for an opportunity to prove he can be an inspiration too, Mumble encounters Brian The Beachmaster, an elephant seal trying to prove to his own children the virtues of living a life like his. A bit of a confrontation ensues, leaving one man’s life hanging in the balance and producing easily the best and most heart-breaking scene in the film. Its specifics are too touching to be spoiled, but suffice it to say, the moment would be at home in any of the great animated movies.
Unfortunately, his father’s interaction with the elephant seal doesn’t impress Erik as much as viewers, and he credits The Mighty Sven’s teachings for saving the day. Disgruntled, Mumble heads home, but upon arrival, he’s devastated to learn the rest of the penguins are trapped after a storm inside a large canyon. All the exits are blocked, and without food, they’ll starve. This quagmire crafts the story arc for the film’s second and third acts, offering a string of aborted ideas, impromptu solutions and ways for Erik to find acceptance with himself.
I wish I could say the penguins’ plight was anything beyond a plot device, but because Mumble, Erik, Ramon and the Mighty Sven are on top of the mountain, it’s hard to truly sympathize with any of the trapped characters because they were given just a few minutes of actual screen time. They’re just victims in need of rescue and vehicles to deliver periodic "we’re sad" singalongs. With Pink providing the voicework for the medleys, they’re far from the worst thing in the world, but they still lack punch and purpose. Emotions need to be earned. They can’t just be gifted upon characters, even if done enthusiastically and melodically.
Apart from a third act that goes a bit haywire, Happy Feet Two's individual scenes and characters could work, they just don't work together. Take the Mighty Sven for example. He’s actually a complex and fun character, voiced in an absurd Nordic accent. As a buffoonish foil, he’s wonderful on paper, but because his second in command is also kind of an idiot and because Uncle Ramon is a moron and because one of Erik’s friends is a blowhard, it’s just too much. He’s not a counterbalance, so he becomes grating. The same could be said about some of the songs. Some of them actually are fun to watch, but because there’s so many of them, they end up being distracting and perhaps worse, boring.
The goal of Happy Feet Two is to have fun, but fun has to be a byproduct of another activity. You can't just will it, and this film's frantic efforts prove that.