HAPPY FEET TWO – Blu-ray review

Penguins were big in 2006 when Warners made their first “Happy Feet” movie.  In fact, that earlier movie did so well, it not only earned a ton of money, it won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year.  So it’s no wonder the studio wanted a sequel.  However, they may have waited a little too long to make it.  By 2011 penguins were old hat, and “Happy Feet Two” pretty much did what we would have expected it to do:  It offered much the same thing the first film did, but less.  As a result, it cost a third more to make, grossed two-thirds less money, and garnered nary a single Oscar nomination.

I found the plot of the first film–for all its sweetness–somewhat vague, the connections tenuous, the messages, noble as they were, scattered and overdone, and the action sometimes static.  Indeed, the story line and characters seemed perfectly suited for a thirty or forty-minute cartoon, but not for one lasting close to two hours.  I have to say the same for “Happy Feet Two” and worse, this time the story elements even vaguer, the messages more overdone, and the action less inventive.  For me, it was a very long ninety-nine minutes.

Again it’s George Miller who co-wrote, co-produced, and directed the film, Mr. Miller the same fellow who gave us things as varied as “Babe,” “Babe: Pig in the City,” “The Witches of Eastwick,” and all of the “Mad Max” movies.  Maybe a postapocalyptic movie about bewitching penguins is next.

Despite “Happy Feet Two” having the same filmmaker back, some of the best voice talent available, a ton of pop music, and gorgeous animation, none of it is enough to endear it to viewers more than a little gorged on the antics of penguins.  Yes, real-life penguins are cute, cuddly animals with fascinating social behaviors; and, yes, animated penguins are even cuter and more cuddly than real ones.  But as I say, it isn’t enough.  Been there, done that, too often.

How big is the cast?  Not only do we get Elijah Wood, Robin Williams, Hank Azaria, Alecia Moore (Pink), Common, Hugo Weaving, Anthony LaPaglia, and others, we get Brad Pitt and Matt Damon of all people showing up in important roles.  And how good is the animation?  If you remember the appearance of the first film, think everything good about it.  Yet without much happening that’s any different from what we’ve already seen in the first movie, who cares?  Combine this with some fairly ordinary musical interludes, and “Happy Feet Two” feels like a well-crafted retread.

One of the first shortcomings I noticed about this sequel is that the filmmakers seem determined to explain the movie’s themes in advance of showing them to us.  So a narrator tells us that “everything is connected,” sometimes in ways we don’t expect; that we should believe in ourselves; that if we will it, it will be done; that all creatures must adapt or die; etc.  Then they attempt to provide a story line that illustrates the points.  I know they intended the film primarily for children, but telling kids something before showing it to them seems a little condescending to me.

Another concern I had was with the characters, most of whom show up from the first movie but without as much zip as they had before.  Emperor penguins Mumble (Elijah Wood) and Gloria (Pink filling in for the late Brittany Murphy) have a young son, Erik (Ava Acres), who doesn’t feel confident about himself because he can’t sing and dance as well as other penguins do; thus, he runs away from Emperor Land to find a place where folks will better appreciate him.  Mumble sets out to find him, both the character of dad and Wood playing the dad seeming bland and mundane.

Robin Williams returns as the characters Ramon and Lovelace, yet both of these roles get relegated to relatively minor parts in the story.  A new character, The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria), a penguin (sorta) who can fly, could have had an expanded role but doesn’t get it.  Likewise, an elephant seal named Bryan the Beach Master (Richard Carter) and a mean-spirited Alpha Skua (Anthony LaPaglia) make an impression in their limited screen time and then almost disappear.  To be fair, Bryan does reappear later in the story, but his reappearance is not exactly a surprise.

The two most compelling new characters are a pair of krill–small, shrimplike crustaceans that travel in swarms of thousands, maybe millions, all of them looking essentially alike.  Will the Krill (Brad Pitt), though, has a mind of his own.  He doesn’t want to be like everyone else; he wants to escape the swarm and, like young Erik, be free to find himself and seek his own future.  So, followed by his good buddy Bill the Krill (Matt Damon), they set out alone to find the answers to the universe and their own personal meaning in life.  These characters are genuinely funny, and I would have been content to see an entire movie just centered around them (“Happy Krill”?).  Alas, this was obviously not to be, either.

Meanwhile, as Erik and, separately, Will and Bill are off trying to define themselves, we see the devastating effects of global warming at work.  Great chunks of Antarctica are breaking off and falling into the sea, and great chasms and crevices are opening up all over.  One such crevasse isolates Emperor Land from the rest of the continent, stranding the Emperor community without food, and it’s up to our hero, Mumble, to rescue them.

Along the way, there is one good, tense, suspenseful sequence involving the elephant seal, which I had hoped would last longer.  Nope, about five minutes is all we get.  There’s also a good moment when the filmmakers integrate live actors into the story, but that, too, is only a moment.  And no matter how desperate things get at any time in the movie, you can always depend on the penguins to break out into song and dance.  From the opening titles on, it seems as though “Happy Feet Two” is less a real movie and more an extended music video.  I mean, does the world really need thousands of rap-singing, hip-hop penguins?

Anyway, the plot wanders from one thing to another, and not very quickly.  It’s more like a slow rambling as it meanders from one story thread to the next, each episode expounding upon one theme or another.  Although I wished all through “Happy Feet Two” that I could have liked it more, it’s so well-meaning a movie, it just never happened.  Almost nothing in it beyond the two krill moved my imagination or my heart.

Warner video engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC encode to transfer the film to Blu-ray in its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.40:1.  For their efforts, they come up with a splendid-looking Blu-ray feature.  The picture quality displays excellent contrasts, with vivid colors, strong black levels, and bright, glistening whites.  Detailing and definition are terrific, too, and the krill, which the artists animate particularly well, practically glow with dimensionality.

The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 sound reproduction is a tad bright and forward, probably about what the movie’s original soundtrack was like.  Bass is good, deep and taut; music shows a nice ambient bloom; and occasional surround effects can be effective.

The first disc of this two-disc Combo Pack contains the feature film on Blu-ray, plus a number of extras mainly designed for youngsters.  First up among the bonus items is a “Happy Feet” app for iPads, iPhones, or touch-screen iPods that acts as a second screen while watching the movie, allowing one a variety of games to play along with the characters.  Next is a series of “Behind-the-Scenes” featurettes:  “Helping Penguins and Pals” is twelve minutes long on Antarctica and its wildlife; “How to Draw a Penguin” is five minutes with concept artist Tim McEwen; “Running with Bodicea” is three minutes on the character with commentary from the filmmakers; and “The Amazing Voices of Happy Feet Two” is five minutes long with the movie’s voice talents.  After that is “I Tawt I Taw a Puddy Tat,” a 2011 remake of the famous old Looney Tunes cartoon, retaining the voices of Mel Blanc and June Foray; followed by several sing-alongs with various tunes from the film.

The extras on disc one conclude with ten scene selections; BD-Live access; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Disc two is a DVD containing a standard-definition edition of the movie.  The package also includes an UltraViolet Digital Download code, the offer expiring March 3, 2014.  The two discs come housed in a flimsy Eco-case so popular these days (at least with studios), the case further enclosed in a handsomely embossed light-cardboard slipcover.

Parting Shots:
With its beautiful animation and nonstop activity, music, and characters, “Happy Feet Two” would seem to be the ideal cartoon for audiences of all ages.  However, this reviewer found it only intermittently entertaining, the music repetitive, the characters largely unimaginative except for the krill, and the action rather hodgepodge.  It appeared to me the filmmakers were trying so desperately to create something similar to what they had succeeded with before that they came up with something pretty generic, something having only a scattershot appeal, something like a hollow shell of the previous film.  That doesn’t make “Happy Feet Two” bad, just disappointing.