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There could be a minor backlash to Sony Pictures Animation's release of Surf's Up this week.
People will argue that the tidal wave of penguin-mania reached its crest with March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. Of course, in doing so, those people will also be underestimating this crowd-pleasing mockumentary, which can easily hang 10 with both of its Oscar-winning predecessors.
Surf's Up follows the big dreams and tiny flippers of Cody Maverick (voice of Shia LaBeouf), a cute and cuddly penguin who yearns to ride the tides like legendary penguin surfer Big Z (Jeff Bridges). But before Cody is old enough to surf alongside Z, his hero wipes out while dueling with Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), his alpha-male rival, and disappears into the surf, never to wash ashore again.
Years later, Cody has made a name for himself as an up-and-coming surfer. Recruited by a Don King-esque surfing promoter (James Woods) and his energetic talent scout (Mario Cantone) to participate in the Big Z Surfing Challenge, Cody rides a whale to Pen Gu Island, where he meets love interest Lani the Lifeguard (Zooey Deschanel) and soon-to-be sidekick Chicken Joe (Jon Heder). And he also meets a mysterious recluse who eventually reveals himself to be wait for it Big Z.
Under Z's tutelage, Cody learns that winning isn't everything, and that it's how you win that matters.
Unlike the directors of most live-action films, directors of animated features rarely get the credit they deserve perhaps because the animation and voice cast overshadow their efforts. But in Surf's Up, co-directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck's contributions are not only significant, but vital to the film's identity. The animation is exquisitely rendered, sure, but it's how that animation is presented that dictates the success of the story.
Brannon and Buck nail the detail, from the way the sun shines off the penguins' backs to the little footprints they leave in the sand as they waddle on the beach. And the film's animated approximation of handheld camerawork is especially inspired; it helps deliver an improvised feeling of spontaneity in which anything can and does happen.
The animation may not be as polished or realistic as it was in Happy Feet, but it doesn't need to be. The inventiveness of the direction and the unique and particularly creative story presentation more than make up for that here.
It's no secret that it takes years for animated films to come to fruition and, yes, Surf's Up was in the pipeline during the same timeframe as its penguin picture predecessors. But, certainly, this film will benefit from LaBeouf's rising star; it comes into theaters in between his surprise smash hit, Disturbia, and his expected smash hit, Transformers. Meanwhile, Bridges provides a lazy slacker drawl that sees him channeling his memorable portrayal of The Dude in The Big Lebowski.
The film's upbeat soundtrack also helps keep things fresh although, to be fair, by the time the unconventional ending hits, you could feel a little wiped from the nonstop surfing.
But after the disappointment of Shrek the Third, young audiences and their parents are hungry for an original animated story. Because of its penguin lineage, you might feel like you've seen Surf's Up before. But there's no doubt this is a wave worth riding.