By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood November 18, 2011 at 2:53PM
Just think of "Happy Feet Two" as George Miller's "Babe: Pig in the City." That's the best way to describe the sequel to his Oscar-winner, "Happy Feet," in which the dancing and singing penguins combat catastrophic climate change in Antarctica, and toe-tapping Mumble has to cope with fatherhood and a son that can't dance.
It's wilder, freer, and more extravagant, as Miller tries to outdo fellow Aussie Baz Luhrmann in the kitschy musical department, literally rising to operatic heights.
But Miller didn't want the film to just get bigger and better in scale. He wanted to take it somewhere else -- down under -- to add the points-of-view of two near microscopic Krill. Indeed, Will and Bill (voiced by Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) are two wisecracking sidekicks that function as the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of the film, taking "Happy Feet Two" to a whole new level of absurdity. Will goes on an existential quest in search of the meaning of life and Bill tags along to keep him in check. Will wants to adapt; Bill wants to adopt. They're an adorable couple and -- intentionally or not -- they steal the show from the starring penguins.
"I became fascinated by the Krill: these great biomasses of which there are billions and billions moving around on the large currents on the bottom of the food chain," Miller suggests. And, like the penguins, they're amazing creatures to animate."
Indeed, that is why Miller insisted on launching his own animation startup in Sydney -- Dr. D Studio -- to meet the technical demands of his sequel. He needed better performances from the fluffy and frenetic penguins as well as the right expressiveness from the bug-eyed, bioluminescent Krill. But because this was also in 3-D, Miller wanted an immersive and tactile experience, given the gorgeous arctic landscapes. After all, he is first and foremost a naturalistic director, and was one of the first to migrate from live action to animation before it became fashionable.
"Essentially, we wanted to create a pipeline that was story-driven," Miller explains. "We worked with the very fine Animal Logic in Sydney, but they're an effects [company, not an animation studio], and even though they look the same, they're quite different animals. In other words, if you're selling effects to several different movies and commercials, you can't customize the pipeline to the specific story, and we really wanted to get into a much more dynamic lighting; we wanted much more detail; we wanted to go into that micro world; we wanted, if you like, to push the photorealism even more. And I view these big dance sequences as big action sequences, so I wanted the flexibility to lens them more dynamically as well."
In fact, Miller, who is now gearing up for "Mad Max: Fury Road" with Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron in 3-D, believes his sequel is both denser and rhythmically superior to the original. "Virtually both 'Happy Feet' movies are grounded in some authenticity about the natural history of Antarctica: the behavior of the penguins and the elephant seals, the leopard seals, the school of birds, the ice and the clouds, and the sun, and so on."
It's hard to argue with the striking results: "Happy Feet Two" is certainly better animated than its predecessor, though it's debatable if it's a better movie. Then again, there are those who prefer the off-beat "Pig in the City" to the brilliant "Babe."
But will Oscar lightning strike twice for this penguin in a season short on originality? Still, the thrill is in the Krill, so with five probable nominees, there's certainly room. Besides, it's hard to resist those lovable penguins when they start singing and dancing to "Under Pressure" or the elephant seals when they come roaring to the rescue singing "Rawhide."