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Hang a 10 on creativity

Clever animation and a feel-good story line in mock-documentary form make 'Surf's Up' a wild ride.

June 08, 2007|Kevin Crust | Times Staff Writer

"Charlie don't surf!" bellows Robert Duvall in "Apocalypse Now," but apparently penguins do. At least that's the concept of the animated "Surf's Up," a clever, delightfully rendered summer diversion in which a tiny rockhopper penguin named Cody Maverick aspires to be a champion wave rider.

Sure there are slow spots, mainly because of overindulgence of an otherwise dead-on faux documentary format, but when Cody (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) meets up with a portly burnout named Geek (Jeff Bridges in "Big Lebowski" mode) and the surfing action heats up, the movie definitely hangs 10 (or six, these being penguins and all).

Unlike that other animated penguin movie "Happy Feet," climate change is of little concern to the animated critters that populate the movie as they move easily between the icy waters of Antarctica and the balmier climes of Pen Gu Island where most of the action takes place.

Young Cody is discovered in his native Shiverpool by a shrill, showbiz savvy shorebird named Mikey Abromowitz ("Sex in the City's" Mario Cantone), who whisks him off to idyllic Pen Gu to compete in the Big Z Memorial Surf-Off -- an homage to Z, the legendary King penguin who once visited Shiverpool inspiring Cody.

Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck from a screenplay by Don Rhymer, Brannon, Buck and Christopher Jenkins, "Surf's Up" rides inventive visuals to mostly winning results. Brannon and Buck parody sports docs in general and television surf coverage in particular, instilling the movie with an X Games vibe. The surfing action replicates and at times surpasses the real thing, and the fabricated "vintage footage" is a wonder to look at. Interviews with Cody and his family conducted by a comically intrusive documentary crew frame the main story, building toward the flightless little bird's inevitable showdown with emperor penguin Tank "the Shredder" Evans (Diedrich Bader), nine-time winner of the Surf-Off.

After "Madagascar" and "Happy Feet," we may all be feeling a bit of animated penguin fatigue syndrome (A.P.F.S.), but the care in which the filmmakers "cast" the various characters as different species of the adorable, tuxedoed birds goes a long way toward curing that. Besides Rockhopper Cody, King Geek and Emperor Tank, the penguin specificity extends to the primary love interest, Lani the lifeguard (Zooey Deschanel), who is a self-possessed gentoo.

Cody is mentored reluctantly by Geek, upon whom Bridges and the animators bestow Lebowskian embellishments; like the Dude, he's both bigger than life and extremely laid back. The chemistry between LaBeouf (the summer's new "it" boy) and Bridges is striking, and their styles mesh superbly. Though their characters are at opposite ends of the enthusiasm meter -- Geek is Zen nonchalance to Cody's spirited zeal -- the actors share an intensity that is difficult to fake.

The rest of the voice casting is also inspired with Jon Heder ("Blades of Glory") as Cody's surfing buddy Chicken Joe, a spaced-out rooster from Wisconsin, and James Woods as a fast-talking otter who is the Don King-like promoter of the Surf-Off (replete with spiky vertical hair).

Visually, the movie benefits from impressively inventive technical animation -- from the crystalline waves to the sandy beaches, every detail suggests a parallel reality where penguins really do surf. Small background scenarios play out behind foreground action with the mischievousness of classic Mad magazine.

"Surf's Up" makes the seemingly requisite nods to poop and fart jokes that presumably play to the Baby Gap generation, but parents will appreciate the ingenuity and care invested in the production. Many of the riffs in the mock documentary might be lost on little tykes, but the film's feel-good message of perseverance, friendship and finding your own wave should be enjoyed by all.

"Surf's Up." MPAA rating: PG for mild language and some rude humor. Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. In general release.

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