If you're worried that you won't be able to keep up with "Happy Feet Two" after missing the first installment of the animated-penguin franchise, fear not: Many of your companions in the audience will be under the age of 5, and several of them may in fact be enjoying their first trip to the cinema. If anyone's behind, they are. Hit the 3D version of the film — this is the rare instance in which the extra dimension is worth the markup — for a visit that is truly a trip, especially in the end credits, when soapy bubbles come wafting out of the screen and over the late-arriver seats. The effect is so strong kids lean forward with their arms out, trying to touch the bubbles. It is, in a word, adorable.
When the visuals are this good, who needs a story? Especially in a movie aimed at 7-year-olds? Director George Miller (who also gets one of the four writing credits) furnishes just enough of a tale to keep us engaged. Once again we're in Antarctica among emperor penguins, who enjoy a bit of song and dance with their sub-zero afternoons. Grown up since the first film is Mumble (Elijah Wood), whose own helium-voiced chick, Erik (Ava Acres), sees no point in dancing with the crowd. When he and two other young'uns go wandering off, they find another colony of penguins enrapt with a curious flying penguin named Sven (Hank Azaria), who holds cult-of-personality sway over the crowd. Sven espouses a simple aphorism about willing and wanting, and how that makes things come true. It's a bit of magical believe-in-yourselfism to undergird a child-friendly premise that adults who have spent their lives wanting and willing plenty of things that didn't come close to happening are welcome to disregard.
While Mumble and the kids are away from the other penguins — voiced variously by Common, Pink, Robin Williams, Sofia Vergara and Hugo Weaving — a rogue iceberg breaks away and slides into the open side of the valley the emperors inhabit, trapping them all perilously. Emperors cannot fly, so they're going to starve to death unless Mumble and the tots can help them out of an ice crater. Yes, "Happy Feet Two" is that hardcore. When was the last time a cartoon prompted you to wonder how long it would take for penguins to turn cannibalistic?
Meanwhile, aslosh in the frozen deep, two krill (shrimp-like crustaceans) named Bill and Will (that would be Brad Pitt and Matt Damon) decide to break away from the krill cloud and go in search of their own destiny away from the pack. Their existential banter nearly keeps pace with the crystalline animation (by Miller's Australia-based Dr. D Studios) that complements the meta-crisis ruminations by these two arthropods. The aesthetics here truly carry the day, as when an aria by Erik becomes, no kidding, the best passage of opera in a Warner Brothers production since Bugs and Fudd spoofed Wagner under the direction of Chuck Jones.
The natural world lends itself to animation of this loving detail, down to individual filaments of ice and pulsing organs inside the diaphanous krill. "Happy Feet Two" also tackles, in a relatively direct fashion, the troubles associated with climate change, so if that's an issue too abstract for the young child or unrepentant Tahoe driver in your life, this is a fine entry point. Why, Mom, is the sad polar bear stuck on a shrinking iceberg? Why, Dad, do big pieces of ice keep breaking off the continental shelf? It won't slap you about the cheeks and ears with a climate message, but credit this as one of the better children's movies for bringing it to the fore. The ice is melting. Species are dying. Weather patterns are scrambled. But it sure is fun to fly in planes and to each eat more than 200 pounds of meat per year. The kids reaching out to touch movie bubbles today are going to know a very different natural (and human) world from this during their lifetimes. It's best to start breaking the news to them now, and in such charming fashion.