All dancing, all singing, all wisecracking, the animated penguins from down under (way under) return in “Happy Feet Two,” an amiable sequel with not much on its mind other than funny and creaky jokes, and waves of understated beauty. Lighter in mood, softer in political outlook and less narratively ambitious than the first “Happy Feet” (2006), the new movie takes place in Antarctica, where thousands of emperor penguins hang out doing familiar animated penguin things, like gobbling fish, braving the weather and breaking into tightly choreographed song and dance.
Tucked amid the crowd is Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood), the gotta-dance dancing fool whose syncopated tapping and stomping moves are, as they were in the first movie, provided by the genius tap man Savion Glover via motion capture. (In this technology an actor’s movements are mapped onto a digital model that becomes part of the computer-generated image. If you’ve been lucky and seen Mr. Glover perform, it’s clear that Mumble doesn’t have the real dancer’s moves, just a shadow approximation.) Mumble has settled down or something with his warbling penguin pal — it’s unclear here if penguins marry, even in children’s movies — Gloria (Alecia Moore a k a Pink, working her pipes), and together they’ve hatched a ball of soft gray fluff, Erik (the gently pipsqueaky Ava Acres).
Erik, as apparently required by the current rules of Western animated filmmaking, has issues: namely, he can’t dance. This means, naturally, that he has to find himself so he can be free to be you and me, or really, just Erik. That he does shouldn’t, after years of Disney-style self-actualization cinema, come as a surprise. Like father, like son; like Disney, like everyone else. And like first movie, like sequel. To that seemingly predetermined end, as in the first “Happy Feet,” which turned on Mumble’s isolation-evolution- socialization, this one partly involves Erik’s inner journey, which parallels an outer voyage that takes him beyond the penguin colony with a couple of de rigueur sidekicks, Bo (Meibh Campbell) and Atticus (the marvelously named Benjamin Lil P-Nut Flores Jr.).
The penguin tots don’t go far and don’t go for long, perhaps because the director, George Miller, is somewhat bored by the little outsider shtick. Whatever the case, Erik and his need are the least compelling parts of “Happy Feet Two,” which was written by Mr. Miller, Gary Eck, Warren Coleman and Paul Livingston, who appear to have greatly enjoyed spitballing jokes. Although there are foreboding images of melting glaciers (an ecological disaster that traps the colony, spurring a rescue attempt), the movie mostly involves cornball stuff and nonsense, the best of which is voiced and sometimes sung with enthusiasm by two brilliantly orange krill, Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon), whose dumb and dumber routine approaches Vladimir and Estragon levels of existential dark humor.
The krill swim away with the movie, though an elephant seal, Bryan the Beachmaster (Richard Carter), or rather his exquisitely animated schnoz (technically his proboscis), has his moments. Truly, the movie could use more of Will and Bill and their adventures beyond the krill swarm. Will yearns to be his own crustacean, and Bill yearns to be with Will, a desire that turns their part of the movie into a sweetly amusing bromance. Mostly, the krill allow Mr. Miller to cut loose from the penguins, which he does both in beautiful images of the undulating orange swarm that echo the aurora australis that transfixes the penguins up on land and in extreme close-ups of Bill and Will that, because the movie was shot in 3D, turn the humble, wee creatures into the approachable heroic colossi they are.
“Happy Feet Two” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). A few scenes of minor parental and child peril.