Lackluster storyline puts ‘Happy Feet Two’ penguin tale on thin ice

In real life, recycling’s a great idea. In reel life, not so much.

So while the recycling theme fits snugly into "Happy Feet Two’s" eco-conscious message, it also helps to explain the underwhelming impact of this animated sequel — in the inevitable 3-D.

The first "Happy Feet’s" singing, dancing penguins captivated holiday audiences in 2006. ("Happy Feet" even defeated "Cars" and "Monster House" for an animated feature Oscar a few months later.)

But movie penguins were definitely in season back then, what with 2005’s animated romp "Madagascar" and the Oscar-winning documentary "March of the Penguins."

The animated penguins who really deserve a sequel are the gnarly dudes from 2007’s "Surf’s Up," but they landed after the cinematic penguin wave had crested, so instead we get another visit from the "Happy Feet" crew.

There’s a decidedly distracted air about the whole affair, as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide on a central focus, so they decided on no real focus at all.

We all know penguins can’t fly, but the way "Happy Feet Two" waddles from one incident to another makes for a long, sloggy trip, indeed.

Once again, we’re chillin’ with our Emperor penguin pals as they strut their stuff during a massive "Rhythm Nation" rave. (Think freeze-dried Electric Daisy Carnival — with a few unsettling flashes of a Nazi-era Nuremberg rally thrown in for conformity’s sake.)

The bumbling Mumble (once again voiced by Elijah Wood), the now-grown hero from the first "Happy Feet" movie, encourages his little son Erik (voiced by Ava Acres) to join in the fun.

Not only does Erik not know how to dance, however, he doesn’t know why he should — resulting in an embarrassing incident that prompts him to hit the road in search of his raison d’etre, accompanied by the wacky Ramon (voiced by Robin Williams) and two other pals.

As they (and we) discover, it’s a dangerous time to venture forth across the frozen wastes, which seem to be unfreezing at an alarming rate. (Cue the movie’s blatant message-mongering, which hits with ice-ax force as cracking, crashing glaciers change the landscape and threaten to cut off the penguin colony from its food source.)

On the ice, Erik and Co. encounter another penguin colony, led by the rockin’ Rockhopper Lovelace (Williams again) and his new hero, The Mighty Sven (a zany Hank Azaria), who looks something like a penguin, but, inexplicably, can take to the skies and fly.

Meanwhile, under the sea — and at the bottom of the food chain — two tiny krill, Bill (voiced by Brad Pitt) and Will (voiced by Pitt’s "Ocean’s Eleven" buddy Matt Damon) ponder Bill’s determination to realize his status as "one in a krillion" and escape his preordained fish-food fate.

Enjoy their free-floating, pun-filled humor while you can, because it’s — and they’re — as good as "Happy Feet Two" gets.

Which isn’t to say the movie doesn’t look gorgeous, especially with all those expansive, computer-generated vistas: gigantic ice cliffs, pastel blues and greens glinting beneath the white; snow so realistically rendered you can see the crystals sparkling; and fluffy fur, each strand of hair precisely defined.

The mere fact that we have time to contemplate all these tiny visual details, however, serves as a great big clue to "Happy Feet Two’s" biggest problem: the lack of a compelling storyline, or sufficiently developed characters, to pull us into the movie and keep our attention riveted. (For an instructive contrast, consider the recent "Shrek" prequel "Puss in Boots," which whips up a fast-paced, exciting adventure for its swashbuckling feline hero and assorted adversaries to share.)

Director George Miller — yes, the same George Miller who, once upon a time, sent "Mad Max" across the post-apocalyptic wastelands — seems content to allow "Happy Feet Two’s" focus to wander as much as its now-you-see-him, now-you-don’t young hero.

The script (credited to Miller, Warren Coleman, Gary Eck and Paul Livingston) introduces a host of new characters, from a snooty penguin siren (voiced by "Modern Family’s" Sofia Vergara) to a pugnacious elephant seal (Richard Carter) who learns a thing or two from the mild-mannered Mumble. As does Mumble’s son Erik, who finally finds his voice — singing an aria inspired by, of all things, Puccini’s opera "Tosca."

But never fear. Most of "Happy Feet Two’s" soundtrack sticks to the "SexyBack" side of the musical fence; there’s even a power ballad, "Bridge of Light," for Erik’s mom, Gloria, to belt. (Alecia Moore, better known as Pink, provides her voice, taking over from the late Brittany Murphy.)

Just don’t expect any of this to make up for the movie’s lackluster plot and pacing.

No wonder that "Happy Feet Two," for all its forced jollity, had me mumbling "Brr, humbug" — early, and often. It’s one unequal animated sequel that leaves me totally cold.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.

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