June 14, 2007

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Surf's Up (PG)
Surfing penguins compete for glory, SPEN (Sports Penguins Entertainment Network) fame and the mantel of the late great Big Z in Surf’s Up, an enjoyably chilled- out bit of animation.

Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) is different from the other penguins of Shiverpool, his hometown in Antarctica. As he tells the documentary crew following his efforts, Cody likes to surf and hopes to use his surfing to get out of his dead-end future separating fish on the fish pile. When talent scout Mikey (Mario Cantone) shows up to seek contestants for an upcoming surf contest, Cody jumps at the chance and hitches a ride on the whale headed to the tropical island to be the scene of the contest. On board the whale, he befriends the live-and-let-live surfing poultry named Chicken Joe (Jon Heder). They bond over their similar outcast status (Chicken Joe is from Wisconsin) and over their difficult childhoods (both lost fathers — Cody’s dad got eaten by a sea creature; Joe’s dad ended up in a six-piece meal). And both are fans of Big Z (Jeff Bridges), the believed-dead surfing champ.

Cody gets to the contest site all teenage cockiness and quickly finds himself smacked down by Tank (Diedrich Bader), the current surf champion.

Depressed over his apparent unfitness for the sport he loves and also injured from being tossed around by the waves, Cody is taken by lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel) to the home of her uncle, a floppy-haired recluse. We quickly figure out that he is none other than Big Z who, after a big wipeout, pretended to die rather than face the humiliation of the loss. Now he simply, well, abides — refusing to even head to the beach until Cody’s heartsickness spurs Z back to the ocean to give his new little friend some help.

All this love-of-the-game-over-ego, believe-in-yourself, doing-stuff-for-the-joy-of-it story motivation is more complex than one normally expects in a kids’ movie but there would seem to be enough poop-related scenes and enough pratfalls to fool even youngish kids into thinking they’re seeing a story made for them. Not that this is necessarily a movie as obviously made for adults as, say, Shrek the Third, but any movie that so highly prizes the joy of just being can’t be geared only at the preschoolers who, after all, don’t do a whole lot more than “be.” And while, yes, being a chicken or a tiny scavenger bird is part of the characters’ personality, they also get a bit more depth than one normally expects in such a movie. Goofiness is here paired with insecurity or bravery.

Without actually coming out and saying “relax” there is something about Surf’s Up that relaxes you — maybe it’s the soft orange colors or maybe it’s the general Hawaiian motif but the frantic, screaming energy that prods other cartoons along is thankfully missing here. I don’t know if your average six-year-old likes this take-a-breath pace but for their parents — dude, it’s pretty sweet. B

Rated PG for mild language and some rude humor. Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck and written by Lisa Addario, Christian Darren, Don Rhymer and Joe Syracuse, Surf’s Up is an hour and 25 minutes long and is distributed in wide release by Sony Pictures Releasing.