The documentary on empire penguins was quite magnificent. The cartoon about a penguin with dancing feet proved to be a real treat, even a work of genius. Now comes a cartoon about surfing penguins. Surfing penguins? OK, yes, critters can do anything in a cartoon, but surfing penguins?
This film from Sony Pictures Animation is a cheerful and frequently amusing bit of nonsense, which certainly will provoke children into giggles. The film does not measure up to "March of the Penguins" or "Happy Feet," both Oscar-winning efforts. Nor is it trying to. Children are the film's main audience, yet enough family members will show up and be entertained that Columbia Pictures can anticipate above-average business.
While the film has limited ambitions, "Surf's Up" does take a fresh approach to cartooning by introducing a reality-TV situation in which a camera crew is documenting the exploits of its penguin hero. This would be Cody Maverick (voiced by hot young actor Shia LaBeouf), an oddity in his home of Shiverpool, Antarctica, because of his mania for surfing while the rest of the penguin colony is hard at work fishing and hatching eggs.
Indeed, his mom and older, much larger brother take pains to portray him as a layabout in interviews with the camera crew (voiced, in fact, by the film's directors, Ash Brannon and Chris Buck). Cody's inspiration is the late and legendary "Big Z" (Jeff Bridges), the Duke Kahanamoku of penguin surfing, whom he once met when Big Z came to Shiverpool. When a surf scout, shorebird Mikey Abromowitz (Mario Cantone), comes to Cody's hometown looking for talent for the 10th annual Big Z Memorial Surf-Off, Cody won't take no for an answer.
He hops aboard Mikey's favorite mode of transportation, a whale, and heads for Pen Gu island (which will remind you a lot of Oahu circa 1950). Here he meets goofy surfer dude Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), who as his name indicates is a chicken -- what, you've never heard of a surfing chicken? -- along with a broad-shouldered and bullying nemesis, Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), and the love of his life, cute lifeguard Lani Aliikai (Zooey Deschanel).
Cody's first challenge to Tank, which surf promoter Reggie (James Woods) turns into a surf-off between the two, ends with Cody wiped out so badly that he is dragged unconscious from the raging ocean by Lani. How embarrassing!
Lani takes him to recuperate in another part of the island where her beach-bum friend Geek has a hut built of old surfboards. Cody quickly realizes that Geek is none other than Big Z, hiding out from his own legend.
Predictably, Big Z trains Cody, which includes making his own surfboard, for a rematch with Tank. His lessons involve learning to have fun as much as how to maneuver among large tropical waves.
The CGI water work, inside the curl of the wave or under water after the wipeout, is extraordinary. All the surfing action is top-notch, a further example of how computer animation has advanced in the past decade or so.
The voice actors often were recorded at the same time -- unusual for an animated film -- so that the characters can ad-lib and play off one another naturally for the "documentary film crew." Bridges is a hoot as the grizzled old surfer. LaBeouf gets all the boyish exuberance out of Cody. And Deschanel is the perfect coquette as the surfer girl. Heder's Chicken Joe nearly steals the show as the fish-out-of-water chicken, while Woods hams it up as a Don King-style promoter.
Sony Pictures Animation
Directors: Ash Brannon, Chris Buck
Screenwriters: Don Rhymer, Ash Brannon, Chris Buck, Christopher Jenkins
Story: Christopher Jenkins, Christian Darren
Producer: Christopher Jenkins
Head of story: Jeff Ranjo
Visual effects supervisor: Rob Bredow
Production designer: Paul Lasaine
Music: Mychael Danna
Co-producer: Lydia Bottegoni
Editor: Ivan Bilancio
Cody Maverick: Shia LaBeouf
Big Z/Geek: Jeff Bridges
Lani Aliikai: Zooey Deschanel
Chicken Joe: Jon Heder
Reggie: James Woods
Tank Evans: Diedrich Bader
Mikey Abromowitz: Mario Cantone
Running time -- 86 minutes
MPAA rating: PG