Happy Feet Two isn't really all that horrible, as animated sequels to musical adventure-comedies about animals that talk like television addicts go; but there's nothing much about that genre that inspires confidence even at the best of times, and besides the which, it has the unfortunate task of following the original Happy Feet, a beautifully-designed family epic that was one of the best non-Pixar animated features of the last ten years. So what might just seem like niggling flaws dotted all over the surface of HF2, petty annoyances that keep it from being anything but a bearably cloying time-waster, are thrown into hard-edged relief: it could have been this, but instead it is that, and that is hardly better than Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa or Ice Age: The Meltdown. Both of which are in fact handily worse than Happy Feet Two, but it's not as disappointing in those cases. Besides which, it's the first genuinely unsuccessful film that George Miller has ever directed, and that is surely worth some extra sadness.

As you perhaps remember, Happy Feet was the story of an emperor penguin named Mumble (Elijah Wood), who had a hard time growing up in a world where all penguins sing to express their inner selves; he'd much rather dance. And the film around him was a fairly basic story of being true to yourself and not letting the bastards get you down, told in such a fascinatingly weird milieu - penguin Moulin Rouge! in essence - and with such exhaustively beautiful visuals, and with such utter conviction that even though it was a story we've all seen a hundred times it's still a story that matters very much, that I, for one, found it positively irresistible. In Happy Feet Two, Mumble (who still looks like a half-chick, half-adult for absolutely no reason other than to make him visually distinct, and Christ did it bother me) has a wife, Gloria (Pink, or as she is anally credited, "Alecia Moore [P!nk]"), and a fuzzy little son Erik (Ava Acres), who can't really sing and can't really dance and mostly just sits there terrifying his parents with his apparent inability to function in penguin society whatsoever.

A couple of things happen at the same time that bring this situation to a head: first, Erik, and his two friends Atticus (child rapper Lil P-Nut) and Bo (Meibh Campbell) all trundle off to another part of Antarctica, where the Adélie penguins live, traveling there with Mumble's Adélie friend Ramon (Robin Williams), out looking for a lover. There they find a cult has grown up around the messianic Sven (Hank Azaria), who is a puffin and not a penguin, and I cannot to save my soul figure out if the filmmakers intended for us to know that before the characters find out. Anyway, Sven can fly, and he inspires penguins by the dozens with his feel-good New Agey bromides; Erik immediately decides that the only thing he wants to do is fly, and devotes himself to visualising that happening, on the logic that whatever you believe to be true will be true. The second thing is that, after Mumble leaves looking for his son, an iceberg shears from the wall surrounding the emperors' enclave, trapping them in a deep well. It ends up taking the combined efforts of several penguin nations just to keep the emperors from starving, but a bit of cross-species work is required to actually free them from their frozen prison.

It may or may not be clear from that synopsis, but Happy Feet Two has one hell of a messy script, written by four men, two of whom also contributed to the first one (Miller himself, and Warren Coleman), and all of whom apparently had an entirely different idea of what the movie should be about. The film has too many characters, too many concepts about the way life in this somewhat fantastic version of Antarctica works, too many musical numbers, and too much craziness all around - it's a whirlwind of activity and energy, very little of which makes sense and none of which coheres until the final act, when most of the characters have had their individual arcs arbitrarily dealt with so there can be a huge (and admittedly, enthrallingly choreographed and "shot") dancing jamboree to wrap up the plot. Watching the film is quite fatiguing, and the only part of the movie that worked for me at all was the stuff with the krill. With the what?, you might reasonably ask, because there was no mention of krill anywhere in that whole plot synopsis. Aye, well much like Scrat in the Ice Age pictures, the krill cross paths with the actual plot several times, but they never really interact with it except by coincidence. Also like Scrat, they are by far the most effective part of the movie that contains them.

They are Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon) - and yes, those are actually versions of the same name, but let us not judge the writers too heavily for it - who have left their giant krill storm on account of Will's newfound sense of self-identity and a desire to be something more than a minute crustacean suited only to being eaten by indiscriminate whales. In the face of all the chaos happening on land, the adventures of the krill are satisfying because it is so straightforward: a little tale of being your own person and being brave in the face of the unknown. Also, because Pitt and Damon have exquisite chemistry and bounce off of each other with perfect comic timing (I do not know if they recorded their lines together or separately, so there is that caveat). And thirdly because of Damon's enthusiastic descent into homoeroticism.

If only for those two, Happy Feet Two would be at least somewhat useful; there are a few other good things (the final dance sequence, bits and pieces of comic business throughout, Richard Carter's growling turn as an arrogant elephant seal), and it's never, ever hard to look at: there is surprisingly little improvement over the original, five-year-old movie, but since Happy Feet was already just about the best-looking animated film of the '00s outside of Pixar, that's not a terrible thing, not at all. Mostly, though, it's just dispiritingly sequel-ey: bigger, lousier musical numbers, no real character development, and a horribly muddled theme that at least tries to do something different from the original, but ends up tying itself into knots, expressing the idea of "it's always the most important thing to be yourself except when being yourself is impossible, in which case you should shut up and listen to your dad", which has the merit of being unusual, anyway. It's a sign of how aimless and hopelessly inchoate Happy Feet Two is that it can't even express its platitudes in clear language. It is still only a little worse than Cars 2, so that's a thing.