Friday, November 18, 2011

Dance of the Penguins: HAPPY FEET TWO

The singing penguins of 2006’s computer animated Happy Feet, having been taught to embrace dancing by that film’s outcast turned hero Mumble (Elijah Wood), are back singing and dancing in Happy Feet Two. The first film’s popularity – not to mention it’s Oscar for Best Animated Film over the far superior Cars and Monster House – has been mostly inexplicable to me. Baby penguins are cute and the film’s brightly colored with some nice music, but it’s also slow and turgid with a pat “be yourself” message awkwardly shoved into an episodic plot that ends in a belabored deus ex machina. It has a few good sequences, but it’s an awfully uneven experience. Needless to say, I was hardly eager to return to that film’s world.

It’s a small surprise, then, that I found the sequel to be a more enjoyable experience. This time, it’s Mumble’s son, Eric (Ava Acres), who feels like an outcast. The film opens with all the penguins singing and dancing and spinning around in celebration of life on their little patch of Antarctica while little Eric just watches. Encouraged to dance, he finally, timidly taps his feet until he gets them tangled up. He falls down and wets himself while the crowd tries not to laugh too hard. Embarrassed, Eric and a couple of his friends head off to another penguin’s territory, where some of the population sounds like Robin Williams.

Mumble goes off to find them, which means that he and the kids aren’t at home when a big chuck of iceberg breaks off of the continent and rides a tidal wave right into the side of the penguins' home. All of the penguins are trapped, surrounded on all sides by towering walls of ice, the iceberg blocking their only path away from their home and to the sea. They will surely, inevitably die of starvation unless help arrives. This is upsetting material for a kid’s film, made all the more so when little Eric, with his dad and pals, make their way back to the now-trapped tribe and look down, beaks quivering. “Mama?” Eric whimpers. They’re so close and yet so far, stuck with the possibility of sitting helpless while everyone they know starves.

Unlike the first film, which so often struck me as aimless in plot and obvious in theme, Two benefits from such an urgent and defined crisis. The plot, after a detour involving a heart-tugging encounter with an elephant seal (Richard Carter) and his cubs, follows the birds’ attempts to feed and hopefully free their flock, attempts that involve the other penguins’ tribe and a puffin masquerading as a flying penguin (voiced with typical ace goofy-accent work from Hank Azaria). This bird is given a terrific flashback that’s animated with great skill, eventually seamlessly integrating him into live-action footage of human researchers.

Returning from the first film, director George Miller has created a new film of quite lovely animation that makes good use of the 3D technology, creating an effortless depth and some playful moments that send water, bubbles, flippers or fish towards the audience. Underwater scenery pops in especially striking ways, such as in the jokey running subplot involving two little krill (Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) who decide to run away from the swarm. They’re introduced as just two in a rolling sea of krill that fills the entire screen and seems to extend infinitely forwards and backwards on the screen and past the heads of the audience. Scenes of schools of fish and of penguins hunting, or being hunted, beneath the waves take similar striking advantage of the CG fluidity and 3D depth.

The script from Miller and three others is tighter, faster, funnier, and more suspenseful than the first go around with these penguins, though it’s still kind of uneven. From time to time I felt only distracted, not entertained, though the film feels even brighter, more musical and more colorful than its predecessor. The variety of the music is jarring at times. How did the penguins learn all these songs? But the numbers are often unexpected, entertaining, and occasionally have real emotional impact. I especially loved a moment in which the film stands still and regards a little penguin belting out some Puccini. This is a film with visuals and sound that get definite benefit from the big screen experience.

The sequel’s altogether a smoother production than the original. It goes down easier despite the weighty concerns that drive the plot. Despite some broad humor, it's a subtler film. The themes never feel overly obvious. And it was the right choice to keep the main character a little penguin the whole time, unlike his father who started small and grew up over the course of his film. I can hardly tell the adult penguins apart in close up, let alone in their gigantic production numbers, but the little ones make up for anonymity with adorability. The children are all fluffy and precocious and so very cute. They’re closing in on Owl Jolson territory as far as rooting interest goes. *

The thematic concerns of the film hit the global warming angle hard, and it makes more of an impact this time. From the tiny krill to the lumbering elephant seals and the towering humans, all are affected by the changing climate. It’s telling that the humans, who appear in the final moments of Happy Feet to save the day and preserve a happy ending, make only fleeting appearances in Happy Feet Two. People could be the heroes, but they just aren’t able to help. These animals are left to deal with the changing landscapes all on their own. They might dance their way to survival this time, but the long-term prospects for their home is gloomy.

*Owl Jolson is the star of the great 1936 Warner Brothers’ animated short I Love to Singa, included in this week’s hilarious, indispensible Blu-ray release Looney Tunes Platinum Collection: Volume 1, which puts to shame the CGI Sylvester and Tweety short that screens before Happy Feet Two.

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