23 November 2011

MO' PENGUINS, MO PROBLEMS

Happy Feet Two isn't really all that horrible, as animated sequels to musical adventure-comedies about animals that talk like television addicts go; but there's nothing much about that genre that inspires confidence even at the best of times, and besides the which, it has the unfortunate task of following the original Happy Feet, a beautifully-designed family epic that was one of the best non-Pixar animated features of the last ten years. So what might just seem like niggling flaws dotted all over the surface of HF2, petty annoyances that keep it from being anything but a bearably cloying time-waster, are thrown into hard-edged relief: it could have been this, but instead it is that, and that is hardly better than Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa or Ice Age: The Meltdown. Both of which are in fact handily worse than Happy Feet Two, but it's not as disappointing in those cases. Besides which, it's the first genuinely unsuccessful film that George Miller has ever directed, and that is surely worth some extra sadness.

As you perhaps remember, Happy Feet was the story of an emperor penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood), who had a hard time growing up in a world where all penguins sing to express their inner selves; he'd much rather dance. And the film around him was a fairly basic story of being true to yourself and not letting the bastards get you down, told in such a fascinatingly weird milieu - penguin Moulin Rouge! in essence - and with such exhaustively beautiful visuals, and with such utter conviction that even though it was a story we've all seen a hundred times it's still a story that matters very much, that I, for one, found it positively irresistible. In Happy Feet Two, Mumble (who still looks like a half-chick, half-adult for absolutely no reason other than to make him visually distinct, and Christ did it bother me) has a wife, Gloria (Pink, or as she is anally credited, "Alecia Moore [P!nk]"), and a fuzzy little son Erik (Ava Acres), who can't really sing and can't really dance and mostly just sits there terrifying his parents with his apparent inability to function in penguin society whatsoever.

A couple of things happen at the same time that bring this situation to a head: first, Erik, and his two friends Atticus (child rapper Lil P-Nut) and Bo (Meibh Campbell) all trundle off to another part of Antarctica, where the Adélie penguins live, traveling there with Mumble's Adélie friend Ramon (Robin Williams), out looking for a lover. There they find a cult has grown up around the messianic Sven (Hank Azaria), who is a puffin and not a penguin, and I cannot to save my soul figure out if the filmmakers intended for us to know that before the characters find out. Anyway, Sven can fly, and he inspires penguins by the dozens with his feel-good New Agey bromides; Erik immediately decides that the only thing he wants to do is fly, and devotes himself to visualising that happening, on the logic that whatever you believe to be true will be true. The second thing is that, after Mumble leaves looking for his son, an iceberg shears from the wall surrounding the emperors' enclave, trapping them in a deep well. It ends up taking the combined efforts of several penguin nations just to keep the emperors from starving, but a bit of cross-species work is required to actually free them from their frozen prison.

It may or may not be clear from that synopsis, but Happy Feet Two has one hell of a messy script, written by four men, two of whom also contributed to the first one (Miller himself, and Warren Coleman), and all of whom apparently had an entirely different idea of what the movie should be about. The film has too many characters, too many concepts about the way life in this somewhat fantastic version of Antarctica works, too many musical numbers, and too much craziness all around - it's a whirlwind of activity and energy, very little of which makes sense and none of which coheres until the final act, when most of the characters have had their individual arcs arbitrarily dealt with so there can be a huge (and admittedly, enthrallingly choreographed and "shot") dancing jamboree to wrap up the plot. Watching the film is quite fatiguing, and the only part of the movie that worked for me at all was the stuff with the krill. With the what?, you might reasonably ask, because there was no mention of krill anywhere in that whole plot synopsis. Aye, well much like Scrat in the Ice Age pictures, the krill cross paths with the actual plot several times, but they never really interact with it except by coincidence. Also like Scrat, they are by far the most effective part of the movie that contains them.

They are Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon) - and yes, those are actually versions of the same name, but let us not judge the writers too heavily for it - who have left their giant krill storm on account of Will's newfound sense of self-identity and a desire to be something more than a minute crustacean suited only to being eaten by indiscriminate whales. In the face of all the chaos happening on land, the adventures of the krill are satisfying because it is so straightforward: a little tale of being your own person and being brave in the face of the unknown. Also, because Pitt and Damon have exquisite chemistry and bounce off of each other with perfect comic timing (I do not know if they recorded their lines together or separately, so there is that caveat). And thirdly because of Damon's enthusiastic descent into homoeroticism.

If only for those two, Happy Feet Two would be at least somewhat useful; there are a few other good things (the final dance sequence, bits and pieces of comic business throughout, Richard Carter's growling turn as an arrogant elephant seal), and it's never, ever hard to look at: there is surprisingly little improvement over the original, five-year-old movie, but since Happy Feet was already just about the best-looking animated film of the '00s outside of Pixar, that's not a terrible thing, not at all. Mostly, though, it's just dispiritingly sequel-ey: bigger, lousier musical numbers, no real character development, and a horribly muddled theme that at least tries to do something different from the original, but ends up tying itself into knots, expressing the idea of "it's always the most important thing to be yourself except when being yourself is impossible, in which case you should shut up and listen to your dad", which has the merit of being unusual, anyway. It's a sign of how aimless and hopelessly inchoate Happy Feet Two is that it can't even express its platitudes in clear language. It is still only a little worse than Cars 2, so that's a thing.

5/10

6 comments:

Trish said...

"And thirdly because of Damon's enthusiastic descent into homoeroticism."

O_o

As I have no desire at all to subject myself to "Happy Feet 2" (I greatly disliked the first one), this statement demands elaboration please.

Man, I was hoping Miller would at least give us a go-for-broke-bananas sequel like he did with the astounding "Babe: Pig in the City". More's the pity.

(How in the nine blue hells does a puffin wind up in Antarctica anyway?!)

Faster, Harder, More Challenging GeoX said...

So...does the movie evince an awareness that puffins are Arctic, not Antarctic, birds? I assume you would've mentioned it if it didn't, but you just never know to what extent kids' movies are going to respect the audience's intelligence.

Tim said...

Trish- Bill the krill is obviously, hopelessly in love with Will the krill, especially given the yearning ache in Damon's voice.

GeoX- There's a whole thing about how he got down there, with a boat of environmentalists and the other Robin Williams character that I didn't even mention. Like I said, it's a busy movie.

HenryJ said...

I love your blog, but I think I disagree entirely with everything you've written here. In a few days - or whenever I can be arsed to actually write it along with a few other reviews - anyone who wants can find out why at my own little blog.

I'm also a huge fan of the original film, and I found this an enormously satisfying follow-up for the way it enlarges the world we were presented with in the first, going a bit deeper and even darker with the constant mention and palpable threat of death from starvation and birds of prey. I thought all of the plot elements cohered together pretty wonderfully, and the film has the same kind of unfamiliar structure that made "Pig In the City" so fantastic. There's even a fairly existential Rosencrantz and Guildenstern subplot in the krill characters.
It's a mesh of things going on, but they all orbit around a core storyline of Mumble trying to raise his son as the world changes and crumbles around him. I'd even say it's less about his son than it is him, and their relationship, rather than any kind of mission of self-discovery on the son's part.

I actually would call this a go-for-broke kind of sequel, very much in the same mode as "Pig In the City" - Miller spares no expense. It's more harsh, it's more epic, and it's more ecstatic. Is it a little messy? Oh, sure. But, I like that. It feels ragged for a reason.

SoA said...

So it appears EVERYBODY thinks the original Happy Feet is top-shelf...

I haven't been able to bring myself to watch it in full yet. I've tried about a dozen times (aided by it being my friend's son's favorite movie) but my suspension of disbelief gets absolutely mauled and destroyed every time. Oddly enough, this has nothing to do with talking and singing and dancing penguins. That's all standard. I can't get past the idea that the singing penguins find the dancing penguin to be strange and unusual... Not to resort to hyperbole, but it's the single most ridiculous premise I've ever heard in any film ever. If the dancing penguin was a mime, say, or a juggler, that'd be gold. But singing and dancing pretty much go hand in hand. Everybody has said the song/dance situation has little to do with the actual movie and as a whole it's great but my mind just can't wrap around this detail.

Rebecca said...

SoA - I'm apparently in the minority, but I'm not in love with the original Happy Feet. Everyone who told you it's not about the song/dance situation is right. Forget how the movie was marketed. What I learned as a projectionist who was checking the print after the theater closed was Happy Feet is not a movie to watch at 3am after a long day; I went into it expecting a happy story about a happy penguin who teaches everyone it's ok to be yourself and was completely weirded out when it became something else.