Just when parents managed to calm their tap-dancing tots, along comes another animated penguin pic — this time featuring South Pole fowl who surf. Like last year’s “Happy Feet,” “Surf’s Up” tells the story of a cuddly outcast who dreams big, much to the consternation of his flock, only this time, the personal journey is captured in the form of a mockumentary, complete with virtual crew and “handheld” cameras. Every bit as entertaining as the early Christopher Guest efforts, Sony toon is well positioned to ride the wave of penguin popularity to success this summer.
Chilly Willy aside, the current penguin craze started well before “March of the Penguins” shuffled to Oscar glory, having reemerged with four wise-talking stowaways in “Madagascar.” “Surf’s Up” transports the black-and-white birds from their monochromatic Antarctic habitat to tropical Pen Gu Island, where the world’s top surfers convene for a championship contest.
Though story, with its warm humor and winning isn’t everything message, seems pitched at the younger set, the mockumentary hook should appease parents who might otherwise be feeling burned out on talking-animal toons — and penguin movies in particular. Though teens could get left out in the cold, the surfing-savvy among them will surely appreciate cameos by wave masters Kelly Slater and Rob Machado (as penguins), along with some of the edgier humor that earned the pic its PG rating.
Blending semi-improvised interviews with ESPN-style coverage, “Surf’s Up” begins with a bird’s-eye view of surfing history, with penguins naturally taking credit for inventing the sport.
“All you needed was a piece of driftwood or a block of ice, and you were off,” Cody Maverick explains, his excitement contagious, the combination of music and scratchy 16mm footage perfectly calibrated to inspire goose bumps (if they could do it for “Grindhouse,” why not an animated penguin movie?). As voiced by rising star Shia LaBeouf, Cody comes across as an immensely likeable and energetic acolyte of the sport.
“Do you have any other skills besides surfing?” prods an off-camera interviewer, the boom mic dipping into the shot. “Like singing or dancing?” Cody laughs. “Yeah, right!” The joke isn’t so much a diss at “Happy Feet” as a way of suggesting that, even without that pic’s eco-friendly message, “Surf’s Up” is no sillier than its musical predecessor. And with laid-back surfing legend “Big Z” (Jeff Bridges) as his guide (and Robin Williams absent from the cast), Cody’s arc follows a much less manic trajectory.
Biggest difference between the two films is the animation style. Where “Happy Feet” helmer George Miller favored a photorealistic approach, in which still frames could conceivably pass for National Geographic photos, “Surf’s Up” directors Ash Brannon (“Toy Story 2”) and Chris Buck (“Tarzan”) anthropomorphize their penguin characters. Design isn’t necessarily as striking as other recent CG toons, but the body language and eyes rank among the most expressive to date.
Animation proves the ideal form to satirize nonfiction filmmaking, since no one could possibly mistake the result for the real thing. It’s also forgiving in several useful ways, excusing not only narrative digressions but also trick shots no camera could have possibly captured, such as the climactic vision of Cody and his Big Z riding a perfect tube into the sunset.
The sophomore feature from Sony Pictures Animation, “Surf’s Up” looks and feels nothing like last year’s “Open Season.” Unlike that film, new item benefits from the cast’s group recording sessions, with the in-person connection allowing actors like James Woods and Jon Heder to riff off one another and achieve the unscripted quality the conceit demands.
Much effort was expended in getting the waves to look just right — do they ever — but pic’s true innovation is the ability to approximate handheld camera work, allowing the directors to “discover” the action within each shot, just as they might in a live-action film. It also enables many a clever gag, notably an interview with lifeguard/love interest Lani (Zooey Deschanel) in which the camera pans away and zooms over her shoulder to find a disoriented baby penguin wading in over its head.
Between its soundtrack of surfing standards and such appealing comic diversions as sidekick Chicken Joe (Heder) and rival Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), pic keeps the energy and laughs constant.