Five years ago I wrote, “Penguins are the new dogs. Not since the heyday of dog movies like Benji and Lassie has one species won over the hearts of so many. “ Penguins were all the rage, appearing in movies as diverse as “March of the Penguins,” the R-rated parody of that movie, “Farce of the Penguins,” family flicks like “Madagascar,” even something called “Penguins Behind Bars” and, of course the Oscar winning dancing penguin movie “Happy Feet.” You couldn’t swing a haddock without hitting a flock of movie penguins, but that was in 2006. The question today is, will people still want to watch waist-coaters do the soft shoe?
“Happy Feet Two” is a series of stories set against a similar theme. Eric (Elizabeth Daily), the son of Mumble (Elijah Wood) and Gloria (Pink) doesn’t have the natural grace of his dad, and like all kids is slightly embarrassed of his old man. Meanwhile Bill and Will (Matt Damon and Brad Pitt), leave the krill swarm, they have grown up in to make a life for themselves in the outside world and the Mighty Swen (Hank Azaria), an odd looking penguin, impresses Eric with his ability to fly. When a catastrophic natural disaster threatens the very existence of the penguin population, however, Eric, the krill and Swen learn what it really means to be a part of something large than yourself.
The original “Happy Feet” and its sequel don’t look or feel like other movies for kids. Director George “Mad Max” Miller is a maximalist director who opens up the usual kid flick palette with swooping cameras, wide-open vistas and beautifully effective 3D. Featuring a cast of thousands—animated penguins as far as the eye can see and “krillions” of krill—the movie is made on a scale that would make Cecil B. DeMille proud.
Story wise the movie also takes a different approach. It’s a blend of musical theatre—many of the story points are introduced or at last supported by epic tunes—inspired by the Emperor penguins who use heart songs to attract mates—and some traditional family themes—father and son conflict, the importance of family—but Miller also digs a little deeper and really examines why people form families.
Mix in a “free to be me and you” subplot about the consequences of conformity and a subtle environmental message and you have a movie that dispenses with the easy morality of most animated films. Who else but Miller would create Bill and Will, two new bug-eyed characters who can only be described as existential shrimps? Actually they are krill, a tiny marine crustacean, but just because they are small doesn’t mean they don’t have aspirations. And most of the movie’s best lines. They banter back and forth like Ionesco and Beckett discussing the vagaries of their limited lives. “I fear the worst,” says Will, “because fearing the best is a waste of time!” Small but mighty they are a highlight of the film.
“Happy Feet Two” is a step above most kid’s movies. It is joyful, beautiful to look at, and has more to say about life, love and the pursuit of happiness than most movies aimed at adults.
Go for the penguins, stay for the krill!