Penguins: They’re back

2006’s Happy Feet was a truly crazy movie, a blend of Pixar-style animation, Bollywood musical and a streak of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

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Set in a world in which penguins sing to connect with their soulmates, the film focused on the unfortunate young Mumbles, unable to carry a tune but endowed with a natural talent for tap-dancing.

It starts off, in short, as a fable about nonconformity and finding your own individual path—a good joke right off the bat, in the black-and-white uniformity of the penguin rookery (in The Far Side, Gary Larson once depicted a single penguin amongst the multitudes belting out “I’ve Gotta Be Me”).

But by the end, director George Miller had spun the film from a sweet, if deeply eccentric, underdog tale into a grandiose environmentalist vision for which the word epic is hardly sufficient—“cosmic” would be more like it.

I’d be tempted to say it’s a one-of-a-kind movie, but as of this weekend, it’s not. A major box-office hit and an Oscar-winner besides, Happy Feet could hardly fail to spawn a sequel, and here it is, some five years later.

In Happy Feet Two, Mumbles (voiced by Elijah Wood) has the penguins mixing some fancy footwork in with their stirring oratorios—the tiny feet often splashing in ominous melt-water—but alas his own son Erik, ironically enough, isn’t much of a dancer.

Poor Erik runs away from the shame of this, accompanied by two loyal pals, and Mumbles heads off to find them.

While they’re gone, a huge chunk of Antarctic ice collides with the rookery, sealing thousands of penguins, including Erik’s Mom Gloria (voiced by Alecia Moore, aka Pink, replacing the late Brittany Murphy), off from the ocean.

So it’s up to Mumbles, Erik and his friends to try to find a way to save them—from hunger, from marauding skuas, and from general despair. Their allies this time include the Latin-accented Adelie penguin Ramon (Robin Williams) and his colony, elephant seals, electric-guitar-playing human researchers and, albeit unwittingly, two nearly-microscopic krill (Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) who have broken away from their enormous swarm to strike out on their own existential search for identity.

There’s also, of all birds, a puffin—named Sven, and voiced complete with Nordic accent by Hank Azaria—who has somehow found his way to the other end of the world. He’s been mistaken for a penguin who can fly, which gives him the status of a sort of self-improvement spiritual leader.

In other words, like the first film, Happy Feet Two is another big helping of off-the-wall weirdness.

But also like the first film, it’s funny and good-hearted, and the musical numbers—which, a la Bollywood, freely mix snatches of the Rawhide theme, grand opera and Queen and Bowie’s “Under Pressure”—are thrilling, both in their relentless rhythms and in Miller’s dazzling, undulating visual perspectives.

Miller’s apparent purpose, this time, is to stave off the sense of despair that many of us feel over the seeming futility of individual action in the environmental struggle.

The moral which the movie asserts—it’s also on the poster—is “Every Step Counts.”

To this I can only say: I hope so.



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