Happy Feet Two is to 2006's Happy Feet what Babe: Pig in the City was to Babe, a clever, adorable original film remade with most of the charm wrung out of it.
The conceit — that penguins each have their own special song, which they use to woo members of the opposite sex, save for one penguin (voiced by Elijah Wood) who can't sing a lick but can dance — is pretty much abandoned for a muddled sequel about trapped penguins and inter-species cooperation, all in the name of "adapt or die."
Yes, global warming is still a subtext (over-fishing no longer is). But now responsibility passes to the critters if they want to survive.
The songs are weaker — classic rock exchanged for generic pop, first-generation hip-hop (Momma Said Knock You Out freely adapted) and moldy oldies (Papa Oom Mow Mow). The laughs are fewer, most of those coming from the randy Adelie penguin, Ramon, voiced with a broad Latin accent by Robin Williams. It plays like a cynical attempt to cash in by throwing a lot of half-baked ideas and far more characters at an elite animation team and expecting them to produce Toy Story 2.
Mumble (Elijah Wood) and Gloria (now voiced by Alecia "Pink" Moore instead of the late Brittany Murphy) are parents, but their little Erik doesn't seem to be a chip off anybody's old ice block. He can't dance or sing. So he scampers off with his pals and falls in with the Adelie penguins in Adelieland. They're led by "the first penguin to learn to fly." Sven (Hank Azaria, slinging a broad Norwegian accent) is a self-help guru and a fraud. He can fly, all right. He's a Puffin passing himself off as a penguin.
"If you want it, you must will it. If you will it, it will be yours," he preaches. It's prosperity gospel meets Tony Robbins. Of course penguins can learn to fly.
That "adapt or die" mantra has been taken up by Will the Krill, voiced by Brad Pitt in a funny but almost utterly unrelated story. Will and his longtime companion Bill (Matt Damon) make scores of Krill and Will rhymes and puns: "I'm one in a krillian."
Will has lost the will to swarm and be whale food, which is what krill do. "I'm moving up the food chain," he declares. "I'm gonna chew on something with a face!"
Up on the ice, the emperor penguins are landlocked by an iceberg, and Mumble must figure out a way to free them while Erik expects his puffin false prophet to save the day.
The opening 20 minutes are a mad, random jumble of characters, situations, voices and song. The only thread that emerges from this confusion (which extends to the sound mix) is that Mumble is making the same mistakes his dad made in encouraging his son. Humans show up and might help. Or not. Real children's voices are used for the many penguin chicks (and elephant seal pups), which is cute.
The animation and color palette (Antarctica has patches of green, as the ice is melting) are a pretty big leap forward from Happy Feet's images, although the penguin faces are as inexpressive as ever.
Which also can be said of filmmaker George Miller, who went from making Mad Max sequels to making the children's films Babe and Happy Feet — and their sequels. Entertaining and teaching kids is a noble pursuit, but half-hearted sequels aren't a happy consequence of that. They're just an excuse to sell toys and Happy Meals.