In a hotel room overlooking Sydney Harbour, the coffee has kicked in for Robin Williams: he’s off simulating phone sex in space and the potentially nauseating effects of 3D cinema. The comedian, who sold out four shows at the Sydney Entertainment Centre in 2010, is in town promoting the sequel Happy Feet 2, in which he again plays the lovelorn emperor penguin Ramon and the evangelistic rockhopper penguin Lovelace.
The film’s co-writer-director, Australian cinema great Dr George Miller, is with him, arguing that his film isn’t “about” climate change per se. “The core central experience of the story is the father and son trying to figure out each other in a rapidly changing world,” Miller says. “We tried to follow the natural history of the penguins, and climate change just comes with the territory.”
In Happy Feet 2, misfit emperor penguin Mumble (Elijah Wood) and Gloria (P!nk, replacing the late Brittany Murphy) have had a nervous baby called Erik (Ava Acres) who can’t dance. When the penguins are cut off from their food supply as a result of a polar ice melting incident, and it’s up to father and son to try to save them. Meanwhile, two tiny crustaceans, Bill the Krill and Will the Krill (Matt Damon and Brad Pitt), decide they don’t want to be at the bottom of the food chain any more and set out to become carnivores.
George, how does real environmental change motivate this story?
George Miller: In the Happy Feet movies all the creatures and indeed the landscape behaves as it does in real life. So you do have those massive rogue icebergs the size of small countries breaking off. Elephant seals do try and dominate the beach in the same way as in the movie. The little tiny krill do travel in massive bioluminescent swarms carried on the great ocean currents, and they are coming in under the ice, no one knows why, when they’re normally out at sea.
What is the essential message you’re trying to convey?
George Miller: To me the essential message is that together, despite all the things that pull us apart, we can overcome the problems of the world. Human beings are at their best when they come together despite their differences.
Robin Williams: Hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes: all of a sudden everybody pulls together. And if a movie can deal with that and resonate with us then it’s not a bad thing.
And Robin, your characters in this film: what’s the journey they undergo?
Robin Williams: Ramon is this kind of hopeless romantic who is always trying to find Miss Right or Miss Right Now. When someone even notices him, even if it’s negative – like with Carmen it's like, “Fat chance,” – [Ramon voice] “Oh, I’ve got a chance and it’s fat.” He’s looking for, and finally does get, the woman of his dreams.
With Lovelace, he’s basically a spiritual leader or a guru who has now seen the light and it’s not him. He has seen a penguin who can fly, which is an epiphany for him. [Lovelace voice] “I believe now! He has the power of Sven.” So now he’s following another leader, but he’s disillusioned by the end.
Did you record the dialogue alone in a booth or with the other actors?
Robin Williams: It was everybody, together. The only people who weren't in the room were Matt [Damon] and Brad [Pitt], because they’re krill and we would eat them. But us being in the room together is a gift because most of the time in animation you’re alone and the director’s not even in the booth: he’s usually on the monitor in another city or another country on Skype. So it’s like, "Ye...ut...st..." It's a bit like NASA phone sex. "Et... sut..." and occasionally you get things floating through.
With these amazing people in the same room and riffing together, [George] calls it full contact sport, where you're really working together and build rhythms and you really get animated, pardon the pun. You really do get to the point where you sweat through shirts.
George Miller: They leave it all on the field, these guys.
Robin Williams: You’ve got to. People were blowing out their voices. Elijah [Wood] blew his voice out. You would just get so excited that your voice would just go.
This one is in 3D. What particular challenges did that pose?
George Miller: They weren't challenges for me. Even in the live-action movies I tend to move along the Z-axis in and out of the screen anyway, which gives you the impression of three-dimensional space. So I'm almost by default a natural 3D filmmaker. The main thing we worked on with 3D was to make it comfortable for the eyes. There are lots and lots of fine techniques so that your eyes are not forced to strain themselves.
Robin Williams: Sometimes you get 3D vertigo from that, where people will literally go “Argggh” [mimes vomiting].
George Miller: We wanted to make it as smooth as possible. But what I love about 3D is that the audience is lifted up and can be carried high above Antarctica and out into space or right down into tiny little micro-world of krill. You feel that you can walk to the front of the cinema and climb up into that world. I hate taking off the glasses, you know – I want the world to feel like that.
And songs play a big part in the films. How much of this script was dependent on which songs were available or you decided to use?
George Miller: The whole thing with animation is that you have to get the voices down before you can motion-capture and animate and light. And the music, it’s not just there decoratively, it has to actually inform the drama. In the case of the song that P!nk sings in the middle of the movie, there was no song already written which matched her singing to soothe the troubled soul of her son – so she wrote a song.
The climax of the film uses a very well known song, arguably over-used in movies [‘Under Pressure’ by David Bowie and Queen], but used so well here that it brings everything to an emotional and thematic climax.
Robin Williams: Hank [Azaria] suggested it. He basically said, "I think this song would work,” and you said, “It works, it fits.”
George Miller: It was as though it was written for the movie. And all the ideas of the movie were encapsulated in the song, which was written 30 years before. So it was a perfect fit.
Robin, we see you in Australia a fair bit, or it might just be my impression –
Robin Williams: Or it might be real. There might be sightings!… [Aussie accent] “Could be him…” Yeah, I come down here fairly often, it's wonderful. I did stand-up here a year ago. And we recorded [the film’s dialogue] down here. I love coming down here, it's amazing.
George Miller: Been to the outback yet?
Robin: No, not to the outback.
Happy Feet 2 is quite intense at times. Were you concerned at all that it might be too intense for a young audience?
George Miller: No, because in the enduring stories, like ‘Hansel and Gretel’, there's always intense and rather dire situations. Because the kids are processing something. They can't talk to an analyst, they can't articulate things, but they can deal with issues [through a movie]. ‘Hansel and Gretel’: parents abandoning their kids, seduction with the gingerbread house, having to kill a witch. It's through stories – it's a safe way that can help kids navigate the world. And adults, by the way.
Happy Feet 2 opens on Boxing Day