On the Endurance-O-Meter, the Happy Feet Two needle swings from “vaguely tolerable” to “cruel and inhumane.” If you’re anything like me, you probably like at least a handful of the pop songs that get Happy Feet-ized, but would describe the experience of seeing them performed by multi-million-dollar, anthropomorphized animals as not being too far off from watching a graphic training film on venereal disease. There’s something about these films, something about the working-over these songs suffer—a wrongness that’s intangible but inescapable, like the unseen menace of a bad dream. The pop cavalcade undergoes a procedure that could be called “the Penguin Glee meat grinder,” wherein boringly polished covers of recognizable tunes are sewn together into a sickly, Cronenbergian obscenity, or a “pop music centipede,” if you will. The indiscriminate viewer, i.e. most moviegoers under the age of 12, will be in hog heaven. For grumpy old men and women, ages 20 and up, mileage will vary, to say the least.
The sequel to George Miller’s 2006 animated musical, which easily trounced a curiously barren field of competition for the Animated Feature Oscar (it should have gone to A Scanner Darkly, anyway), Happy Feet Two opens with a bullhorn blast along the lines of “Citizen! You enjoyed Happy Feet, now enjoy this, or else.” In under five minutes, George Miller and his army of technicians and talent (arguably a greater number of people than the population of the post-apocalyptic city in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) forcibly inject into our eyeballs and eardrums a condensed run-through of the first film’s bullet points: In a Utopian vision of Antactica, the world’s penguin population pass the time singing and dancing to what amounts to a giant Hollywood iPod—the kind of Grammy-certified playlist that’s piped into fitness centers everywhere.
Mumble, the can’t-sing/can-dance-a-little hero of the 2006 film, is now a father, and about a third of the sequel concerns his efforts to coach his youngest son past a crippling sense of insecurity, and to find his own unique talent. (In the film’s sole grace note, it’s revealed that the son has a talent for Puccini; thankfully, the Tosca aria isn’t hybridized with something like Pink’s “Funhouse.”) With enervating nobility, this fantasy construction is buttressed by larger concerns for the melting polar icecaps—Happy Feet Two thus taking its place as the first movie in history to inspire its audience to turn in their 3D glasses after the show, rather than simply expect it.
From there, the film more or less falls apart: Four screenwriters weren’t enough to come up with a dramatic conflict more innovative than the time-honored “Lassie, Timmy’s fallen into the well, run and get help,” on top of which two krill (voiced by Matt Damon and Brad Pitt) are thrown into the mix. The krill subplot is even thinner than the penguins’, to the point where it scarcely has any reason to exist, besides providing an excuse for a few Finding Nemo-ish digressions from the main spectacle. Within this simple framework, the makers carelessly dump every spare story idea they can find, from carnivorous predators to reluctantly heroic bystanders; the result is more like a junk heap than the ode to pop music and the global community than was likely intended.