Penguin Power: 'Surf's Up' Shreds New Water

Cody and Chicken Joe catch a wave.
Cody and Chicken Joe catch a wave. (Sony Pictures Animation)
By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 8, 2007

Was it just the onset of early summer torpor, or did the trailers for the animated kids' comedy "Surf's Up" make you want to gag on your sushi? Cute penguins, ingratiating music, more cute penguins -- didn't we just do this? And, by the way, can't someone grab the nearest harpoon -- or, better, hungry leopard seal -- and finally take those little critters out?

But wait: Somewhere between the overrated "Happy Feet" and all those recent documentaries about young, blond jocks of various boards (skate, surf, snow and boogie), "Surf's Up" turns out to be a pretty nifty family movie, with enough of a new-old look and fresh vocal talent to make it a refreshing break from the current slew of summer retreads. So put down your harpoons and rein in the leopard seal, for now.

Shia LaBeouf (late of the sleeper hit "Disturbia") voices teenage penguin Cody Maverick, who longs to leave his fish-sorting job in Shiverpool and ride the tubes with his surfing heroes. Cody is plucked out of obscurity one wintry day -- they're all wintry in Shiverpool -- and finds himself in a competition memorializing his hero, the surfing star Big Z.

Cody is a rockhopper penguin, the kind with yellow plumes sprouting showily out of their heads, and for the first few minutes of "Surf's Up," viewers will no doubt be surprised to hear LaBeouf's adolescent croak instead of Robin Williams, who portrayed the rockhopper in "Happy Feet." But where that overstuffed and overlong film careered into dark, digressive jags, "Surf's Up" keeps it simple, sprightly and visually dazzling.

Directors Ash Brannon ("Toy Story 2") and Chris Buck ("Tarzan") have made the bold choice of structuring the film as a mock-documentary, and do a remarkable job of approximating that timely genre, from the overlapping dialogue -- Cody's banter with his bullying older brother, Glen, is especially on point -- to the splashy ESPN-like graphics that explode across the screen when Cody arrives at the pro competition. (Real-life surfers Rob Machado and Kelly Slater, as well as sports announcer Sal Masekela, show up in cameo penguin personae for extra verisimili-dude.)

But the filmmakers save their most impressive tricks for reproducing vintage film stocks throughout "Surf's Up," from old 1920s black-and-white films to the deeply saturated Super-8 stock of the 1960s. What's more, they have mastered the art of waves and weather, creating shimmering, mirrorlike tubes for the penguins to ride (and make spectacular wipeouts in) and changing the backdrop from pea-soup fogs to tropical, wish-you-were-here golden hours.

As visually arresting as "Surf's Up" is, it's the story -- refreshingly devoid of snarky "Shrek"-like pop culture references -- and the characters that make it come to life. In addition to LaBeouf, the film features the voice talent of Zooey Deschanel as a comely lifeguard, Jon Heder as a lake-surfing chicken from Sheboygan, Mario Cantone as a fast-talking talent scout and James Woods as the Don King-like sports promoter.

Then there's Jeff Bridges, who's been enlisted to play the washed-up old salt named Geek, a crusty old beach bum who teaches Cody that there's more to surfing than shredding the competition. Fans of "The Big Lebowski" will find it a particularly inspired piece of casting, proving that even as a two-dimensional character, The Dude abides. "Surf's Up" rides its own tube, balancing as it does between too cool and too cute. It's neither, which is a neat trick indeed considering its overexposed avian subjects.

Surf's Up (82 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for mild profanity and rude humor.

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