When similar films are released at once, we tend to form premature opinions about them. Just another movie about vampires, right? Or superheroes or horses or, in this case, penguins. Back in 2005, the Hollywood obsession over these odd-looking creatures began with March of the Penguins, followed by Happy Feet in 2006 and Surf’s Up in 2007. This weekend we can add to the penguin-fest with the first sequel from the bunch, Happy Feet Two. But if you’ve seen one, have you seen them all? That would be a big, waddling no.
The stars may be black and white, but Happy Feet Two and Surf’s Up are loaded with colorful storylines that make the two films unique. Can Happy Feet Two dance its way to victory or will it be wiped out by the gnarly Surf’s Up? It’s time to take these arctic avians to the ring. May the best penguin win.
After five years and an Academy Award for Happy Feet, writer/director George Miller takes us back to the small patch of ice in Antarctica where the penguin dance party never stops, even in a crisis. Mumble (Elijah Wood), the vocal illiterate who taught the penguin community to appreciate his tap moves, now has a son, Erik, who can’t dance. When tension rises between Erik and Mumble, Erik requests guidance from the Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria), a flying penguin, on how to find his special gift. The plot thickens when Mumble and Erik find their colony trapped in Emperor Land after a massive glacier crashes into the Earth, making it impossible for the penguins to escape. Mumble calls on Ramon (Robin Williams) and his other arctic friends to help free Gloria (Pink), Noah the Elder (Hugo Weaving), and Carmen, Ramon’s bombshell love interest (Sophia Vergara).
Where the original kept to a singular storyline revolving around Mumble, Happy Feet Two steps gives the new supporting cast members the spotlight on the icy dance floor. Two krill, Will and Bill (Brad Pitt and Matt Damon), venture away from the swarm to find a bigger purpose in the world. The Mighty Sven searches for a family to accept him, even as he struggles to accept himself. Little do they all know, every step counts and even the smallest krill has an important shoe to fill.
Surf’s Up, a pseudo-documentary told through the perspective of the cameramen, captures the journey of Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) and his transition from a small-town surfing penguin to a living legend. After Reggie (James Woods) scouts Cody for the annual Penguin World Surfing Competition, it doesn’t take Cody long to come face to face with his fierce competition. Luckily he has his new friend, Chicken Joe, and the love of his life, lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel) looking out for him. Coincidentally, Cody finds a mentor in Big Z (Jeff Bridges), the greatest penguin surfer of all time and Cody’s personal hero. Cody discovers that Big Z has turned into a recluse with no desire to rejoin penguin society. Friendship keeps these two lost penguins afloat and teaches them that winning isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
The collaborative efforts of directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, who shared writing credit with an igloo full of others, depicts the life of a surfer through edited footage as it would be seen on television stations like MTV or ESPN. The audience never meets the cameramen but is constantly reminded of their presence because of their questions during interviews and when the characters on screen ask them to stop shooting.
Happy Feet Two ties some very serious issues of global warming and famine with a less severe but emotional plot concerning the broken relationship between Mumble and his son. And if that doesn’t do it for you, then watching baby penguins shake and shimmy to Justin Timberlake’s “SexyBack” will most likely put a smile on your face. The most serious problem in Surf’s Up, on the other hand, is getting hot-headed Cody and Big Z, a laid back deadbeat, to understand each other. The story is straightforward and singular—Cody wants to win the competition. You can find more complexity in a Pixar short. But the comedy in Surf’s Up gets a bit raunchy at times, like watching Tank, the nine-time champion of the penguin surfing competition, talk dirty to his female-labeled trophies, or seeing the camera hide Reggie’s male parts when he stands in the hot tub during his interview.
Happy Feet 2 and Surf’s Up both attract stellar, A-list stars to their films. Interestingly, the actors playing the voices of the animated characters were recorded in the same room, where they were able to work and feed off of each other. At the time Surf’s Up was released, recording a group of actors together for an animated film was rare. Four years later, George Miller has made the same decision. In both films, the chemistry plays nicely.
As a seasoned surfer, Jeff Bridges was drawn to the role of Big Z but claimed he couldn’t grasp the idea of making Surf’s Up documentary-style until seeing clips of the footage. It’s this innovation that saves the film from being “just another penguin movie.” It puts a creative spin on what otherwise would have been a one-dimensional film. Unfortunately for Surf’s Up, Happy Feet Two was filmed in 3D, so Surf’s Up is still a dimension behind. And the Animal Logic visual effects team did a bang-up job with the effects, making just enough of them to allow the audience to marvel over the scenes popping off the screen instead of becoming irritated by them. I found myself holding my breath as a wave rose over my head from the screen and appeared to break onto the seats in the theater. Next to me, two children were attempting to pop the water bubbles bouncing around during the credits. CGI works for Surf’s Up, but HF2 is so visually stunning that it drowns Surf’s Up in this round.
Surf’s Up keeps afloat overall, though, with a saving grace. In an animated film marketed for children, it’s possible to have too much going on—something director George Miller of Happy Feet Two would do well to remember. Mumbles doesn’t know how to help his son find his special gift. That’s a good problem. The Emperor penguins are trapped in a ravine with no way out as a result of global warming. That’s a good problem. Introducing minor characters with their own heartaches like Sven, Bill and Will and connecting them with the overall point of the movie is pushing it but still a good problem. These are enough for one movie, but in an effort to make the dangers of global warming hit home, Miller squeezes in a fourth problem, introducing humans into the film’s landscape momentarily, then having them disappear after what the Elder Penguin refers to as “a little wind.” This section of the film is obviously meant for the older crowd, but with everything else going on, it wouldn’t have hurt to trim the propaganda and get on with the story.
For singing and dancing penguins, the right music selection is crucial, and Happy Feet Two delivers with a soundtrack including songs from the Beach Boys, Queen, Janelle Monáe and Pink. Surf’s Up chooses artists like Sugar Ray and Pearl Jam which, no offense to those musicians, just doesn’t seem right for surfing penguins. Happy Feet Two takes this round as well.
What we come down to in this Smackdown is an animated movie made for all ages versus one made for kids with some adult content thrown in. A combination of the beautiful visual effects, emotional storylines, likeable characters and fun music earns Happy Feet Two a solid score in the ring. I liked Surf’s Up, too, but it was a movie for a rainy day—and preferably one with kids younger than 12 in the room. Happy Feet Two wins this penguin competition, but don’t worry, Surf’s Up—winning isn’t everything.