Review: Uneven but ambitious 'Happy Feet Two' full of big ideas and big stars
As I expected, I'm already getting yelled at by "Twilight" fans because I dared to dig into the text created by Stephenie Meyer, whose name always appears in red as I write a piece about her or her "Twilight" series because she spells it wrong, and I dared to dislike the film based on what her books say about who she is.
The thing is, I can't just switch off the analytical part of my brain when I watch something, and I don't believe anyone should. Yes, films are entertainment. Yes, many of them are about as deep as a puddle. But should a lack of ambition be the thing we reward in films? And should ambition be considered a bad thing when a movie is trying to do something different?
George Miller obviously doesn't think so, and thank god for that. When he makes a sequel, it seems like he goes out of his way to avoid simply rehashing the film we've already seen, and that has thrown people consistently throughout his career. I may love "The Road Warrior" on a nearly-chemical level, but if you were a fan of "Mad Max," it must have felt jarring to go from this personal revenge story to what is essentially a spaghetti western set after the end of the world. I know that when I first saw "Max Max Beyond Thunderdome," it threw me because I wanted more of "The Road Warrior," not a story about the Lost Boys of the Outback. When audiences saw "Babe: Pig In The City" the first time, it must have been a real shock, and it seems like some people (Ron Meyer, I'm looking at you) still haven't gotten over it. I love that Miller's film was almost completely different from the original, which seemed appropriate since the setting was so different.
The original "Happy Feet" was very much about the music that was so central to the film's premise, and I loved the fact that the film smuggled in some big ideas in the midst of what is essentially one penguin's search for his voice. This new film seems like it was designed to turn up the stakes and also to ask even bigger questions, and while I'm not sure it all works together, there's so much about it that is good and smart and genuinely reaching for something that I would say it is a film well worth your time, with or without a child in tow.
The first film dealt with the idea that Mumble's faith in the Great Penguin In The Sky was shaken by the reality of the world he lived in, and that seemed to upset some people. How dare a movie about singing penguins also deal with notions of faith and belief? And how dare that movie take anything other than the easiest of positions on the subject? If you were one of the people who simply wanted singing and dancing and nothing else, then you should be aware that Miller's dealing with many more subjects this time, like the responsibilities of fatherhood, the urgency of keeping your promises, the interconnectivity of an ecosystem, and, in what may be the master stroke of the sequel, one Krill's quest to move up the food chain and become a predator.
In this one, a chunk of glacier breaks free and starts a journey that will eventually impact all of the characters from the first film and a whole bunch of new characters, bringing several different species together in an effort to survive what is, for them, a catastrophic ecological event. Along the way, Mumble (Elijah Wood) is forced to examine his purpose as a father and the best way to help his son Erik (Ava Acres) find his own place and his own voice, and Lovelace (Robin Williams), who was such a vocal spiritual figure in the first film finds himself following a new savior, a penguin who seems to be able to fly named Sven (Hank Azaria). Meanwhile, Ramon (Williams again) finds himself still searching for a mate, and when he meets Carmen (Sofia Vergara), he decides that he's done taking no for an answer.
Mumble was an outsider as a child, so it seems like he'd be able to understand Erik's efforts to figure himself out, but it doesn't always work that way. One of the hardest parts of being a parent is trying to avoid making the mistakes that our own parents made while working to make sure you don't make your own brand-new mistakes. And of course, we all fall short at times. What defines us is how we respond to those failures, and I like that Mumble isn't a hero because he "saves the world" or fights a bad guy, but simply because he's driven by an innate decency to try to help his son and his community. More films should celebrate this sort of simple heroism, and it's obvious "Happy Feet Two" has a huge heart in addition to an active, engaged mind.
The story of Will the Krill (Brad Pitt) and Bill the Krill (Matt Damon) is only loosely connected to the main storyline, but it is a remarkable mini-movie in its own right, beginning when Will has an existential crisis, deciding to see what lies beyond the edges of the Krill cloud that is his entire world. When he realizes that there are giant creatures who are feeding on the Krill, and that his entire purpose in life is to be food and nothing else, he decides to challenge that idea. With his best friend by his side, he starts to work his way up the food chain, determined to kill and eat something with a face, no matter what it takes. Eventually, the storyline does collide with the main story about Mumble and the other penguins, and the way they dovetail underlines Miller's big point about the interconnectivity of everything, and the importance of each and every part of an ecosystem.
Technically, the film is quite striking, and I love the way Miller uses real humans in this heightened animated world. He manages to find a way to make everything, whether it's a musical number or an attempt to save a Bull Walrus or the feeding of a crowd, feel like a big action sequence. Miller is one of those directors who seems to genuinely love the freedom that animation gives him in terms of staging and composition, and he keeps the film's various storylines in motion with a real sense of energy. I think the film could use some narrative focus, but there are very few things about it that I dislike.
I do have less connection to the music this time, and while Miller had great thematic explanations for his choices in our interview, I still just don't enjoy the soundtrack as much this time. I also think it's a shame that there's less of the music, that much more of the film feels focused on other things. The use of songs to express the inner lives of these characters was more organic in the first film, and I like these as musicals. I wish the score didn't feel more like an afterthought this time, but I will point out how much I love the way "Under Pressure" in particular was used.
I also think Hank Azaria's Sven the Mighty is one big comic character too many, and while I admire the way Azaria throws himself into these big broad roles, I don't think Sven pays off enough thematically to justify all the screen time he's got. He may be the biggest misstep of the film, and i feel like he keeps pulling focus away from things that work better or that I'm more interested in.
The thing that many producers of films for families get wrong is that children are too delicate to handle big ideas, and if nothing else, I salute George Miller and everyone involved in the "Happy Feet" movies for their willingness to push. "Happy Feet Two" may be messy around the edges, and it may bite off more than it can chew, but I'll take this sort of well-intentioned ambition any day over the easy and lazy popcorn fare that is frequently offered up for our kids.
"Happy Feet Two" opens today.