Watching "Happy Feet Two" is to remember how special (and also how odd) the first "Happy Feet" was. Coming out in 2006, "Happy Feet" was part cutesy kids' movie, part dark coming-of-age story, part goofy musical, part ecological warning, and part stunning visual experience. Where Pixar likes to say that their movies appeal to children and parents equally, "Happy Feet" seemed like it wasn't sure what demographic it wanted to go after so, screw it, it was going to try to do a little bit of everything. The 2006 film wasn't perfect, but it was that rare mainstream animated movie that had a distinctive, idiosyncratic vision, which came from its director, George Miller, a man who'd made Mad Max movies but also "Babe." But all that bizarre, inspired strangeness of "Happy Feet" is what's largely missing from the sequel.
"Happy Feet Two" reunites us with the penguin hero of the first film, Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), who's now a grownup. His son Erik (Ava Acres) feels like an outsider because he can't dance like the rest of the penguin colony, so he falls under the sway of a charismatic penguin named The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria) who can somehow fly and preaches a gospel of self-belief to overcome any obstacle. But when a shifting iceberg traps the colony without food, Mumble has to figure out a way to save the day.
If that brief plot description seems disjointed -- what does Sven have to do with the iceberg? -- that's one of the major problems with the new film. While the original movie wasn't exactly a model of tight narrative cohesion, "Happy Feet Two" feels like several separate incidents tied together rather loosely. (There's actually a fun subplot involving two krill, voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon, but it doesn't have a thing to do with the central story.) Just as problematic, though, is the fact that the central story is pretty boring. Erik's journey to find what makes him special isn't nearly as moving or involving as what Mumble went through in the original film. As for the business with Sven, it's so clear that he's a charmless snake-oil salesman from the beginning that you get offended that the other characters take so long to size him up.
The movie still has its pleasures, however. Though it's less boldly inventive than the first film, "Happy Feet Two" is even more of an eye-popping knockout. (The 3D helps as well.) Miller and his co-writers have once again invested their film's South Pole setting with a wealth of detail, whether it's the lumbering elephant seals or the troubling pools of water underneath the penguins' feet, the movie's unspoken reference to global warming. And while there aren't as many standout musical numbers this time, there are two near the end (that I won't ruin) that are positively rousing, briefly reminding us what was so exceptional about "Happy Feet."
But because "Happy Feet Two" is a drag when it comes to its storytelling, the first movie's weaknesses are much more apparent this time around. By this point, Robin Williams is an acquired taste you either accept or not, but his voice work in "Two" is just as irritating as it was in the first film. (Wouldn't it be great to see an animated film with him in which he doesn't play the most grating -- I mean, "entertaining" -- character?) And when the musical numbers fall flat, it's even more apparent how much the "Happy Feet" movies rely on our familiarity with the songs being covered. (At these movies' worst moments, they can feel like "Moulin Rouge" with dancing penguins.) The idiosyncratic strangeness is still in evidence -- tonally, the movie dips between light and dark without warning -- and it can be oddly moving when you least expect it. But where the first film was uneven but wildly ambitious, "Happy Feet Two" just seems rambunctious and unfocused. It mostly makes you want to watch the original and pretend this one didn't happen.