Sunday 17 December 2017

Happy Feet 2: Picking up with the penguins

After toe-tapping their way into Oscars history, the penguins of Happy Feet are back. Kate Whiting talks to the all-star cast who give voice to the animated family

Kate Whiting

IF THERE was a popularity contest in the avian world, penguins would top it every time. This year alone, Jim Carrey made a movie with them and David Attenborough's practically devoted an entire series to the polar birds in the BBC's Frozen Planet.

Now our aquatic friends are flocking back to the silver screen in animated form for the sequel to the 2006 Oscar winner Happy Feet.

And such was their appeal that Mad Max director George Miller was able to gather an impressive cast, including Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Pink, to tell the Antarctica-set tale in 3D.

The Lord Of The Rings star Elijah Wood returns as the voice of Emperor penguin Mumble, who had to learn to tap dance when he realised he couldn't sing to find a mate, in the original.

He's all grown up and now has a son with Gloria (Pink) called Erik, who can't dance. Ashamed, Erik runs away and meets The Mighty Sven (voiced by Hank Azaria) - a penguin who can fly.

Wood, 30, admits it was surreal going from being the child to a father in just five years, especially one who's having problems with his son.

"At the beginning of the movie you find Mumble quite confident, everything sussed out and doing really well as a father," he says.

"Then he suddenly realises he can't connect with his son like he thought he would, tries a variety of different things and they don't work, and he sort of fumbles.

"Elizabeth Daily, the actress who was playing my son during recording, would make my job so easy because the voices she's capable of are extraordinary. It endeared me to her and made me want to be a better father!"

Robin Williams reprises the dual roles of Ramon, leader of the Adelie penguins, and Lovelace the Guru, the Rockhopper penguin who dishes out advice.

No stranger to animation, having famously voiced the Genie in Disney's Aladdin, he says it was the collaborative approach to Happy Feet that enticed him back for the sequel.

"When I did other animations, I was usually alone, but in this we record together in the same room, so it's a pretty wonderful experience. And we worked in Australia, which is even better, now I speak the language," he adds, slipping effortlessly into an Aussie accent.

Most of the cast, which includes Hank Azaria who voices Moe in The Simpsons, shipped out to Australia to record their roles together.

"It provided a more immersive experience," says Wood. "We recorded the first one in big groups as well and worked together as a cast. When you're in LA and everyone goes home at night, it doesn't feel the same. I love being on location making films, because you're in a bubble of the world of the film."

While the Happy Feet films might seem like a world away from the real-life penguins of Frozen Planet, director George Miller says he wanted to "follow nature" as closely as possible.

"Everything we see is based on the behaviour of the animals and the landscape. Clearly the main characters have to differentiate themselves because a colony of penguins all look the same, but we tried to make them as palpable as possible."

With the exception of Bill (Matt Damon) and Will (Brad Pitt) the existentialist krill, shrimp-like crustaceans who escape their swarm only to realise they're at the bottom of the food chain. Will sets out to undo Darwinism by trying to become a predator himself.

Miller says: "They live in this biomass, billions of krill, all of them identical and what's their purpose in life except to provide food?"

"They have those big eyes which lend themselves to animation, so we thought it would be interesting to have this story of one krill who thinks there's got to be something else."

Williams adds: "The idea of predator krill is one of my favourites. Watching Matt and Brad playing off each other was like seeing Abbott and Costello on acid, saying, 'I'm going to evolve, screw Darwin, I'm going this way'. To me that's a great concept in animation."

Pink, who sang on the soundtrack of the original, joined the cast this time as the voice of Gloria, replacing Brittany Murphy, who died of pneumonia in 2009. Wood and Williams felt extremely sad without Murphy reprising the role, but embraced Pink, real name Alecia Moore, in her animated film debut.

"She had never played a character in a film so it was fun to watch her go through that for the first time and enjoy it," says Wood.

While Williams admits he's more a fan of Japanese anime these days, including the work of Hayao Miyazaki, he's still in awe of 3D and the computer animation process.

"I become like a child sometimes watching these movies, so when you're asked [to be in] animation, you're eager to go there."

Miller has no regrets about revisiting Mumble and co, despite the fact it hasn't been as commercially successful as the first one since it opened in the US.

He says: "It's weird - these stories and the characters stick in your head, kind of like imaginary friends and you want to feel they've played their lives out."

Oscar-worthy animations

Happy Feet won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film in 2007. These animations have also wowed the academy:

- Beauty And The Beast (1991): Disney's tale of Belle was the first animation to be nominated for the Best Picture Oscar. It won awards for Best Original Song and Best Original Score.

- Spirited Away (2001): Hayao Miyazi's ethereal Japanese animation about a girl who wonders into a world of gods won the Best Animated Feature in 2003.

- Waltz With Bashir (2008): This 18-rated Israeli animation about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon was the first animation to be nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009.

- Up (2009): When the Best Picture category was expanded from five to 10 films, the heart-warming tale of an old man and a boy was nominated for both Best Picture and Best Animated Feature Film, winning the latter as well as Best Original Score.

- Toy Story 3 (2010): After making grown men cry, the third and final Toy Story was up against The King's Speech for Best Picture this year, and won Best Animated Feature and Best Original Song.

Happy Feet Two is released in cinemas on Friday, December 2

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