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Non-Review Review: Happy Feet II

Happy Feet II is perfectly functional kids entertainment. It has enough set pieces to keep the audience ticking over, lovely animation and a timely environmental message underneath the fuzz. It is a little bit too inconsistent to hold the attention of older audience members, as the plot struggles to find a focus, with the movie often seeming like a stew brewed from a variety of different ideas. The result is often satisfying enough in small chunks, but it doesn’t impress enough overall to make a lasting impression. Although a younger, perhaps more idealistic, viewer at the screening did describe it as “the bestest experience in united history.”

The pitter-patter of little Happy Feet...

Penguins are cute. Maybe it’s the appeal of birds that can’t fly, which makes them feel a little more “grounded” than other avians. Perhaps it’s the way that they waddle so clumsily, yet swim so graceful. Maybe it’s because, to quote another source, “they look like little butlers.” Either way, there’s something inherently adorable about Penguins – something that’s even harder to resist when they’re younger and fluffier. So a family film about penguins has a pretty solid basis.

There’s also Robin Williams. I know Williams gets a bit of flack for teasing us with his acting ability in films like One Hour Photo and Insomnia, before reverting to films like R.V.: Runaway Vacation and License to Wed. Here he spends the movie putting on funny voices to play two members of the lead cast. It’s certainly not the best use of the actor, but if you’re looking for funny voices for animated characters, it’s hard to think of a better actor. I still have a soft spot for Williams’ Mork-style”comedy, involving silly accents and voices, so he’s a solid addition to the cast.

The coolest bird in this 'berg?

However, outside of that, the film struggles a bit. At times, it doesn’t feel like the movie has a plot, so much as it has a bunch of stuff happening randomly. Events don’t seem to flow naturally into one another, and things have a habit of happening and then being abandoned. For example, a large section of the movie sees a community of penguins stranded without food. At one point humans show up to help; then, suddenly, bad weather forces them to leave. At another point, a bunch of sinister birds of prey arrive en masse and swarm overhead; but they ultimately just fly off and leave when the situation resolves itself. Things like this happen quite a bit, with elements stopping and starting with little effort, and plot points being introduced to be wrapped up just as suddenly. It seems that these elements were added merely to pad out the runtime.

There are other strange elements that also eat away at the film. There’s a variety of really strange accents from the penguins, which feels really surreal. In particular, I’m wondering why Hugo Weaving opted to play the lead penguin with a thick Scottish accent. Other characters within the same community sound like they come from England or the United States. I can understand why certain outsiders may have strong accents (to the point where I don’t mind “Sven” having a weird Swedish accent, because Hank Azaria is having so much fun teasing ladies about “the svensation”), but it feels quite odd to see so many diverse accents among a fairly homogenous group of penguins. I guess this is just movie logic I have to accept.

Dance of the Penguins?

That said, I also found quite a bit of the toilet humour a bit off-putting, especially when the movie is so clearly aimed at younger audience members. I don’t mind the odd double entendre or other attempts to sneak something for parents into a film for children, but I find the film’s “pee and poop” jokes a little strange, particularly because they’re unnecessary. We see a young penguin’s attempt to dance as humiliating enough, without the character wetting himself. A stirring speech as predators attack could be as easily undermined by an actual attack as by a “bird poop” joke. It’s not a big thing, but it was a bit distracting.

On the other hand, the advantage of the strange disjointed feel to the movie is the fact that not all elements feel tied in together. So while the sections involving the penguins can feel a little aimless or random, the movie actually manages to construct an interesting little subplot around Bill and Will, the Krill. It’s frustrating, because the plot involving Bill and Will is just as unstructured as the main plotline, but it’s a lot more emotionally engaging and well-constructed. Following two Krill attempting to leave “the swarm” (“goodbye, krill world!” one laments), it’s the sort of wacky idea you’d almost see in a Pixar film, as they grow tired of being the lowest link on the food chain and trying to find their own way in a world that they don’t really understand.

View to a Krill?

It’s fascinating, because it’s hard to resist wacky ideas like Bill’s sudden decision to become a carnivore (and there’s no faulting his ambition as he selects his first target). Bill and Will are the type of characters who would generally be the quirky comedic support, but I think Brad Pitt and Matt Damon do a really good job – they feel like almost the only cast members not to put on silly voices, and there’s something endearing about the fact that two members of the cast are completely tone-deaf (Brad Pitt treats us to We Are the Champions and Matt Damon playfully murders Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go).

More than that though, the two have a genuine chemistry that isn’t replicated amongst the rest of the cast, and there’s a wonderful ambiguity to their relationship – at one point Will suggests they could settle down and adopt, and he hugs Bill pretty close at one point, while Bill emotionally bullies his partner into various poorly-thought-out plans. They are intended as comic relief, but they’re the most interesting part of the film. In particular, seeing pieces of the film play out from their point out view manages to make it all seem wonderful and exotic. The snow looks like sand, and an attacking whale seems impossibly large. I have to admit to being a bit skeptical about the idea of a double-team of those two actors as supporting characters in an animation, but they ended up being the best part of the film.

Sven out of ten?

And, to be fair, there are moments outside those featuring the two krill where the movie works, but they’re just too randomly spaced to really gel. Most of the dance sequences left me pretty cold, but perhaps I’m simply out of touch. However, the film climaxes with an almost choral version of David Bowie and Queen’s Under Pressure, which has always been a phenomenal song, and feels all the more impressive in the surround mix. It’s too bad that very few of the other musical moments hit the same high notes, but it’s not a bad way to resolve a movie.

Happy Feet II isn’t bad. It’s just average. It’s a mess of a film, which means there’s very little consistency to it. There are some decent ideas, and the pretty pictures will keep the younger kids amused, but there’s nothing here for the older kids or the adults with them. In an age where the bar on “children’s entertainment”feels like it is constantly being raised by film-after-film-after-film, Happy Feet II reminds me of the nineties – specifically, the typical standard of animated films from studios other than Disney during the nineties. It’s not bad, but it’s not really that good, either.

A birdie told me...

It’s also worth taking a moment to discuss the Warner Brothers short that opens the film. It’s a Looney Tunes short, so I’m immediately in favour of it. It uses I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat, a classic song (featuring the talents of Mel Blanc) with Tweety and Sylvester – this time put together as an animation. However, it isn’t rendered as a conventional Looney Tunes short, but rather as 3D CGI. In many ways, it feels like a proof of concept, and an attempt to test the water, rather than an entertaining feature in its own right. I wasn’t blown away, but there were some nice moments that illustrated how the format could (if used right) suit the material. And, to be honest, it’s just great to have Sylvester and Tweety back.

However, this particular short just seems like a poor choice for a pilot scheme. If you’re going to rely on classic material (like the song recorded by Mel Blanc), why not be bold? Imagine Duck Amok rendered in 3D? That would be conclusive proof whether this was a good idea. Or What’s Opera, Doc? Something the pushed the limits of the animation division, rather than a standard model short. I know CGI can do conventional animation, but you need to convince me that CGI can match the very best technical and imaginary accomplishments of the studio. Director Matthew O’Callaghan’s earlier Road Runner shorts (including Coyote Falls) do a much better job at illustrating how CGI can work just as well as conventional animation.

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2 Responses

  1. Nice rundown. I’m still not sold on the CG Looney Tunes. From what I’ve seen of the new television program, I much preferred the faux-traditional 2D work to the clunky computer generated pieces.

    As you’ve stated, Pixar has proven what can be done with computer-animation but with work like “Tunes” or “Tex Avery,” the magic lies almost entirely in the movement of the characters and not the models themselves.

    In the time between the first “Toy Story” and “3,” Pixar animators have moved from simply making pretty pictures that function as successful animation to truly “animating” computer images, in the golden-era sense of the word.

    Can CG reproduce, and perhaps even surpass, hand-drawn material? Pixar has proven the answer to be resounding yes. Just because Pixar can do it, however, doesn’t mean everyone can and should.

    Too bad the Tunes ended up in the hands of Warner Animation. It’s not that they’re dreadful, or that it could have been any other way, but after “Rango” I keep thinking how great an ILM/Looney Tunes convergence might come out.

    By the by, Darren. Make sure to check out the “Small Fry” Toy Story short before “The Muppets.” It’s good stuff.

    • Thanks Stu. I’m heartbroken, because apparently the Muppets don’t open here until February. Although we do get to Hugo next week, so it’s not too long a wait for that.

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