Environmental changes may be endangering the penguin population in real life, but on screen the little critters are certainly flourishing. Ever since “Madagascar,” and especially “March of the Penguins,” the creatures have been proliferating in movies, especially of the animated variety. (There’s even a spoofing reference to the phenomenon here, when the lead pengy notes that he doesn’t sing or dance—a modest jibe at the expense of “Happy Feet.”) But even their most ardent supporters may feel that “Surf’s Up” represents one appearance too many.
The movie, the second offering in the recent glut of computer-animated flicks to come from Sony (following the pretty good “Open Season”), is unusual in opting for a mockumentary approach in telling the story of Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), a young penguin who devotes himself to surfing, much to the annoyance of his mother and older brother. His initial love of riding the waves came from a visit to their arctic town, Shiverpool, years earlier by the legendary Big Z (Jeff Bridges), renowned as one of the grand old birds of surfing, who encouraged Cody to take it up.
When Cody’s home is visited by a scout for surf promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods), a fast-talking dude with a Don King hairdo, the youngster grabs a ride on the whale taking talent to the Big Z Memorial competition on an island in the Pacific with plans to enter the event, still wearing the medal Big Z gave him, against arrogant champ Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), who bested Z a decade earlier in the match in which Z wiped out and disappeared. Cody doesn’t make much of an impression with his surfing at first, but he does make some friends—lovely lifeguard Aliikai (Zooey Deschanel) and zonked-out contestant Chicken Joe (Jon Heder). The real turning-point comes, though, when Aliikai takes the lad, who’s been injured in a race with Tank, to the retreat of her reclusive uncle Geek (Bridges again), a lumbering fellow who turns out to be…well, you know…and who teaches our hero that he should be surfing not to win prizes but because of the sheer exhilaration.
In terms of style alone, “Surf’s Up” scores with some imaginative touches, aping the on-the-fly look of “reality” photography with “tilted” camera angles and out-of-frame shots, and the wave animation is pretty impressive. It also earns points for the easy throwaway laughs it gets mocking “documentary” sports puff pieces (with characters talking directly into the camera) and ESPN-style broadcasts, and for situating its penguin characters in a surrealistically improbable, Hawaii-esque environment. But the characters are blandly ordinary—Cody the smart-ass kid, Lani the sweet helpmate, Joe the doofus sidekick, Reggie the motor-mouthed hustler, Tank the dumb-ox rival—and Big Z, as voiced by Bridges, is a shambling over-the-hiller who might have been called The Big Penguowsky. And if you strip away the mockumentary wraparound, the whole thing is pretty much a retread of an old “Beach Party” movie with animated penguins in place of Avalon and Funicello—which might be either a drag or a joy, depending on your nostalgic point of view. (No musical numbers, though.) One may also be pained by the obligatory pandering to tots’ enjoyment of potty humor in the periodic insertion of “pee” and “poop” in the dialogue to get a cheap laugh from tiny viewers.
Within the confines of the script, the voice work is solid if largely ordinary, and technically the movie’s good too. But “Surf’s Up” is just a middling entry in the tidal wave of computer-animated pictures that have been engulfing theatres over the last few years. It delivers a good message, that kids should play sports not to win trophies but to have fun. But one hopes that its makers feel the same way about their work, and that they enjoyed making the picture—because this mediocre kidflick isn’t likely to garner any awards, either.