The Mild Climate-Change Agenda of 'Happy Feet Two'

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The children's flick comes with an environmental subtext, but it's even less likely to inspire controversy than the original dancing-penguins film

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Warner Bros.

There are predatory birds and hungry sharks in Happy Feet Two, the sequel to the 2006 Oscar winning smash hit about dancing, singing penguins. But climate change is the real villain of George Miller's film, reshaping the Antarctic tundra with the insidiousness of a criminal mastermind.

Yes, Happy Feet Two is the latest family movie to come complete with a politically tinged Very Important Message. The first Happy Feet dramatized the perils of overfishing. Pixar's Wall-E critiqued consumerism. This year's Cars 2 touted the benefits of alternative fuels. And way back in '92, Fern Gully took on deforestation. You can understand why this happens: What better way to make some environmental threat look truly threatening than to put cute, animated beings in peril?

Many conservatives weren't happy with the original Happy Feet. Glenn Beck, for example, called it "propaganda" on his defunct CNN Headline News program in 2006, decrying it as an "animated version of An Inconvenient Truth." The meme hasn't died: This year, a FoxNews.com commentator complained that "Hollywood has been putting politics and heavy messages into so-called children's animated fare instead of just trying to tell timeless stories like 'Snow White' or 'Pinocchio.'" But so far, Happy Feet Two hasn't stirred up much controversy, beyond the New York Post's Kyle Smith joking—or maybe not joking?—that the film serves as a liberal allegory for the Greek debt crisis.

Maybe that's because the politics in Happy Feet Two are gently applied. It offers an overload of that other, dependable family movie staple—anthropomorphic animals (and, in this case, crustaceans as well)—and indulges in the new-millennium pop-culture obsession with chipper cover songs.

While climate change directly informs the plot, which concerns the efforts of penguin protagonist Mumble (Elijah Wood) to free his colony after a shifting glacier traps it in a steep valley, the narrative's primary emphasis is on the relationship between Mumble and his adolescent son Erik (Ava Acres). Erik is ashamed of the fact he can't dance, angry at his stern father, and drawn to The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria), a flying penguin, as a surrogate role model. The father-son strife further places the movie in familiar territory. The narrow personal focus contrasts with the grandiosity of the film's depiction of the Antarctic expanse, turning a daunting foreign spectacle into a recognizable universal story.

Still, there's a strong sense of place throughout Happy Feet Two. Rendered in 3-D, the film packs a considerable visual punch, capturing the awe-inspiring dangers of Antarctic life. There's an appropriately epic scope to the depictions of an underwater chase or the glittering aurora australis.

"All in all, I do not believe that anybody on earth has a worse time than an Emperor Penguin," wrote the Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard in 1922. To a surprisingly effective extent, Happy Feet Two confirms that observation, whether it's when the penguins huddle during a terrifying winter storm or when Mumble struggles to evade a massive predator. The plot's basic animating force—the spectre of the penguin community slowly starving in its enormous natural prison—is heartrending.

In the end, though, these darker inclinations are, of course, mollified by the singing, dancing and all-around cuteness. The threat posed by the changing landscape is forgotten as the penguins belt out Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation." That doesn't make it a bad movie. In fact, it's pretty entertaining. Think Glee, not An Inconvenient Truth.

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Robert Levin writes about film and other entertainment topics for amNewYork, Inside Jersey, Backstage, and elsewhere. He is a member of the New York Film Critics Online guild.

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