In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
Sultry culinary genius Isabella (Penélope Cruz) leads an idyllic life running a seaside restaurant in Brazil with her husband Toninho (Murilo Benício) - until she finds Toninho in bed with another woman that is. Heartbroken she heads off to San Francisco and immediately finds work as -- what else? -- the host of a TV cooking show. Screwball comedy complications ensue as a prayer to a Brazilian goddess goes awry Isabella's show becomes a hit and a penitent Toninho arrives to try and win his wife back.
Perma-pouting Spanish dish Cruz ("All About My Mother") is a solid actress with an excess of on-screen charisma but she isn't particularly well served by her first Hollywood starring vehicle. Hampered by their thick accents she and hunky Brazilian co-star Benício ("Orfeu") fight their way through hokey exchanges that have no business being in English anyway. (The whole film would have gone down more smoothly in Brazil's romantic tongue Portuguese.) Of the supporting players Harold Perrineau ("The Best Man") generates the most sparks putting a surprisingly fresh spin on one of the more tired modern screen clichés: the strapping black drag queen.
Venezuelan-born helmer Fina Torres ("Celestial Clockwork") adopts the candy-shop approach to commercial storytelling packing her film with enough sexy stars bright South American colors and tangy bossa nova tunes to distract viewers from the lame predictability of Vera Blasi's script. Pinching ingredients from the Mexican food-and-sex smash "Like Water For Chocolate " the filmmakers cobble together a passable romantic fantasy in the Latin American magical-realist tradition. Too bad most of the comedy falls flatter than a Brazilian crèpe.