Surf's Up ***
What the world needs now is not another penguin movie, it would seem, following the animated "Happy Feet" and the documentary "March of the Penguins." But this surfing epic is so different from its predecessors - its plays like an improvised Christopher Guest-style mockumentary - that it's hard not to be charmed.
Get movie listings, reviews, and more at lawrence.com
"Surf's Up" might be yet another film about penguins, but it's still original.
This animated film about surfing penguins unfolds documentary-style, complete with scratchy "archival" footage of surf legends from the past. Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), a tiny Rockhopper penguin and surfer, talks directly to a camera crew that follows him from his home in Shiverpool, Antarctica, to a big surfing contest on a tropical isle.
Once you get past the idea of penguins needing surfboards to negotiate water, a premise that initially evokes that famous quote about fish and bicycles, the faux-documentary angle is pretty nifty. So is the animation.
Big-wave and underwater scenes are vividly rendered, and a sequence in which a storm brews over the surfing contest creates an impressive sense of mood. But the adventures in "Surf's Up" tend to be more modest than those in "Happy Feet" or even "March of the Penguins."
The voice acting, by contrast, is more nuanced than in most animated films. Much of the charm of "Surf's Up" derives from the relationship between Cody and his mentor, voiced by Jeff Bridges. LaBeouf and Bridges invest these characters with real personality.
Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, "Surf's Up" assumes that kids have seen those other penguin movies and know about such things as regurgitated meals. Though Cody isn't as instantly adorable as Emperor penguin Mumble from "Happy Feet," he shares with Mumble an individualistic streak at odds with the penguin fold. His zest for surfing prompts disapproval from his brother (voiced by Brian Posehn, who, oddly enough, sounds more like a surfer than other voice actors).
But Cody feels as if he was hatched to surf, and not just in Antarctica's icy waters. His idol is the late Big Z, a surfing legend who once visited Shiverpool and bestowed a special clamshell medallion on Cody.
Shots of Big Z hot-dogging on a long board might remind parents of the stellar surf documentary "Riding Giants." Apart from the surfers being penguins and not people, of course.
Cody makes it to a major surf contest dominated by the towering Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), who is like Laird Hamilton plus feathers and epic insecurities. After Cody wipes out, the local lifeguard, Lani, takes him to the home of Geek, a jungle-dwelling hermit and surfing guru. Lani is voiced by Zooey Deschanel, whose quirky-croaky delivery compensates for her character's lack of visual distinction.
Heavy-set and sporting the feathered equivalent of dreadlocks, Geek doesn't want much to do with the kid at first. But they soon form a mutually inspiring duo, leading to some terrific "Karate Kid" moments.
Just as LaBeouf plays youthful enthusiasm without going broad, Bridges, bringing in hints of The Dude from the "The Big Lebowski," plays a burnout without ever making him a loser. LaBeouf and Bridges often recorded their roles together - not the norm for animated films - and it shows in lively, beautifully timed exchanges.
In a fun touch, surfers Kelly Slater and Rob Machado voice penguin versions of themselves. A trio of youngsters provide consistent laughs in talking-head, penguin-on-the-street interviews.
Jon Heder brings comic life to Cody's pal Chicken Joe, who looks and moves like a floppy rubber chicken. Some setups involving Chicken Joe are cliched, but his attitude sends a healthy message to kids. This surfing fowl doesn't care about winning, only catching the perfect wave.