'Surf's Up': Original in a sea of sequels

Posted: June 08, 2007

I KNOW WHAT you're thinking - enough already.

The "Madagascar" penguins, marching penguins, penguins with happy feet, Sydney Crosby - we've had it with freaking penguins.

We've seen the movie about the penguin that doesn't fit in because he dances, and we don't want to see a movie about a penguin that doesn't fit in because he surfs.

That's how I felt anyway. It's only because I have the sort of burdensome job that forces me, often against my will, to attend private screenings during which I'm plied with free coffee and doughnuts that I ended up dragging my grumpy butt to "Surf's Up."

But guess what. It's pretty good. Fast, funny, nicely animated, and - gasp - it's not a sequel! In fact, you could almost call it original.

The filmmakers (some of the "Toy Story 2" and "Tarzan" guys) have framed their story of an outcast surfing penguin as a documentary - right down to the "candid" interviews, off-camera voice of the director and the boom mike swinging over head. The concept is as old as "Spinal Tap," but its hip re-invention for the animated arena makes it feel new.

Too hip for kids? Doubtful. A few years ago, a badly animated but clever little movie called "Hoodwinked" put standard fairy tales through a "Rashomon," Quentin Tarantino-type blender, and kids were with it all the way.

"Surf's Up" is even easier to grasp (especially the ESPN-ish presentation of the actual contest), and it has the attractions of a winning story and likable characters brought to life by unusually astute choices of matching voices.

Shia LaBeouf ("Suburbia") is the voice of Cody, a spirited but untutored young surfer who abandons his anti-surfing South Pole family and journeys to Hawaii for a big-wave contest.

He's overmatched, but seeks the counsel of a reclusive surfing dropout - the voice is supplied by Jeff Bridges, whose California drawl is ideal for the character (it's almost as good as hearing him say "That rug really pulled the room together" in "The Big Lebowski").

Their mentor-student, wax-on/wax-off relationship is handled nicely, and is the real heart of the movie, although "Surf's Up" also provides Cody with a lifeguard love interest (Zooey Deschanel).

Standout supporting characters abound, again with first-rate vocal complements - Jon Heder is laid back as Chicken Joe, James Woods is a rapacious surf contest promoter who plans on using Cody as ratings fodder for his dangerous contest.

In a summer of overdone do-overs, "Surf's Up" is itself a stand-out, even if its broad appeal means we're only two years away from "Surf's Up II." *

Produced by Christopher Jenkins, directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, written by Don Rhymer, Ash Brannon, Chris Buck and Christopher Jenkins, music by Mychael Danna, distributed by Sony Pictures.

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