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What appeared fresh and fun back in 2006 now feels like recycled goods in Happy Feet Two. The first time around, the sight of multicultural penguins singing and dancing in a gorgeous, environmentally threatened setting seemed disarmingly novel. But while a number of new characters have been introduced into the zoologically varied cast, the format and themes have a shopworn air that even the 3D Antarctic vistas and intermittent cleverness can’t surmount. Commercially, however, there’s no reason this splashy sequel won’t perform similarly to the original, which pulled in $385 million worldwide.
It’s now been 13 years since George Miller directed a live-action feature and the thought that he’s devoted nearly half that time to this sequel, no matter how remunerative, understandably agitates devoted fans anxious for him to get on with his Mad Max retooling or some other project.
On the other hand, tykes will be delighted to return to the icy climes inhabited by Mumble (now a dad), Ramon, Lovelace and a host of new creatures, who face the challenges of life with varying amounts of trepidation and grit. But the minute the film opens with a massive musical number featuring what could be thousands of penguins singing and dancing in precision unison, at least some viewers will want to side with Mumble’s little misfit son Erik for not succumbing to the pressure to conform by joining in the forced jubilation.
But, alas, this is not to be a penguin The Catcher in the Rye. While little Erik does run away, accompanied by two fellow Emperor tots and his dad’s riffing friend Ramon, it’s not really in rebellion, and the script fragments in a way that illustrates the variety of life forms on, under and around the seventh continent,the backdrops of which, as before, are vividly captured in a hyper-realistic animated style.
A more engaging quest of identity than Erik’s, all the more appealing for being so absurd, centers on a pair of krill energetically vocalized by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt. Resembling tiny red shrimp, krill exist in uncountable numbers at the lowest end of the underwater food chain, there to be scooped up by the mouthful by a multitude of predators. No creatures could be more anonymous or less prone individualization, so when Will proclaims his unique identity–”I am one in a krillion,” he insists in just one of many such puns—it’s hard to not to be taken in by such unlikely hubris. Not only that, but the interplay between Damon and Pitt is especially spirited, giving their scenes an energy that feels natural rather than cranked up by music and in-your-face effects.
The feeling is palpable of Miller and his colleagues searching for new ways to present the Antarctic setting, to come up with something fresh to justify this sequel. But ultimately they fall back on such reliables as comic shtick in a variety of accents and soul/funk/rap numbers mixed with tired ’70s and ’80s anthem rock refrains. Indeed, the only truly inspired musical touch, which hits like a bolt from the heavens, has little Erik delivering, in a pivotal moment, a unique rendition of the “’E Lucevan Le Stelle” aria from Puccini’s Tosca.
As the film bounces along, much of the incident and action feels increasingly arbitrary and unmotivated. Compared to the best recent animated features, the script just isn’t very funny, tending towards nutty hijinks rather than wit. Even where the disarming krill are concerned, some of their close shaves feel reminiscent of the misadventures of the desperate squirrel in the Ice Age series.
And speaking of Ice Age, the global warming theme gets another earnest workout here in a way that will win nods of approval from the Al Gore faithful but provoke irritation among those tired of being spoon fed the politically correct line. The penguins’ world is seen to be melting, with puddles and wet ice in evidence, and an environmental crisis puts the vast avian population in peril requiring a desperate rescue effort. Scientifically true or not, on this subject, as well as artistically, Happy Feet Two is treading water.
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