Happy Feet Two
On a wing and a prayer
Centuries from now, cultural historians will look at “Happy Feet Two’’ and ask one question: What the heck were they smoking?
Like the original 2006 “Happy Feet,’’ the 3-D sequel is a vision of bizarro Antarctican excess, with thousands of digitally animated penguins thundering in choreographic lockstep to an unholy fusion of Janet Jackson, Queen, and the 1962 doo-wop novelty song “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.’’ Imagine Animal Planet hiring Leni Riefenstahl to produce a hip-hop “Riverdance.’’ Is your brain starting to hurt? Good - maybe now you’re ready for the exuberant weirdness of this movie.
Little kids, of course, will swallow it whole without thinking twice, but they know better than to ask things like What is that Atlantic puffin doing in the Southern Hemisphere? or Did Brad Pitt and Matt Damon get teeny-weeny paychecks for playing crustaceans? Little kids are naturally on drugs: We just call it “imagination’’ or “willing suspension of disbelief’’ or “too many Gummi Worms.’’ No, it’s we adults who have to watch “Happy Feet Two’’ with one eye closed so we won’t flash back to that junior year party at the hippie frat.
Even with one eye closed, you can tell that George Miller, the slightly crazed Australian filmmaker who has given us “Mad Max,’’ “Babe: Pig in the City,’’ and the first “Happy Feet,’’ is scrambling to keep audiences awake. The original told a linear, if deeply strange, story about a fluffy little penguin named Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) who tap-danced rather than sang Top 40 R&B tunes, as penguins apparently do everywhere except in reality.
“Happy Feet Two,’’ by contrast, juggles four separate plots and eight different species while treating the melting of the polar ice caps as a dramatic device rather than an environmental catastrophe. The main order of business is the massive iceberg that has crashed into the coastline, trapping hordes of emperor penguins without food or means of escape. Outside the danger zone and desperate to help are the now-grown Mumble (Wood again), his adowwable son Erik (voiced by Ava Acres), and their manic, Hispanic Adelie penguin pal Ramon, whom Robin Williams again turns into the life of the party.
On top of this, “Happy Feet Two’’ layers the shy Erik’s struggle to find his own talent (believe me, it ain’t what you think; in fact, it’s the movie’s single freakiest curveball); a subsidiary plotline about a wayward Svedish-accented puffin (Hank Azaria) whose ability to fly makes him the penguins’ new guru; and - from way out in left field - two shrimplike krill, Will (Pitt) and Bill (Damon), who escape their fate as whale food and head out to climb the food chain and become predators. The two stars throw themselves wholeheartedly into what anyone over the age of 10 will recognize as a funny, moving tale of same-sex invertebrate romance.
And it keeps coming: power ballads, Southern Lights, a hot tamale of an Adelie penguin with the voice of Sofia Vergara (TV’s “Modern Family’’), emperor penguins who sound like Common and Pink, a Tony Soprano-style skua (Anthony LaPaglia), a hulking elephant seal with an Aussie growl (Richard Carter), a Greenpeace ship with motion-captured humans who see a penguin singing on an ice floe and - of course! - immediately pull out their guitars for a jam session. If you forget you’re watching a 3-D movie, here comes the penguin guano to remind you.
Much of this relentless over-stim is beautiful to look at. The neon blue skies and many shades of white make for a surprisingly varied palette, and Miller and his digital minions keep things moving with action sequences that swoop and bank above the ice and beneath the sea. The 3-D feels organic to the tale rather than forced, and the chilly vastness of the Antarctic landscape almost functions as a separate character.
That said, if you’re above the age where you need a booster seat, it’s hard not to feel the desperation behind the film’s hyperactive invention. One scene could stand as a metaphor for the whole of “Happy Feet Two’’: hundreds of trapped penguins launching themselves off a snowy peak and trying with every fiber of their beings to fly - only to slam into a wall of ice.