June 09, 2007

MOVIES: Surf's Up (Ash Brannon & Chris Buck, 2007)

Again with the penguins.

This time, they're surfers, gathered for the tenth annual "Big Z Memorial" tournament, in honor of the legendary penguin surfer. Among Big Z's devoted followers is 17-year-old Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), who dreams of being the next big star on the penguin surfing circuit. Surf's Up is framed as a documentary that follows Cody from his home in Antarctica to the tournament; that device allows the movie to play a little with the storytelling -- nicely aged "archival" footage, the off-screen voice of the interviewers (directors Brannon and Buck) talking to the characters -- and it's not overplayed so much that it becomes tiresome.

Nothing about Surf's Up, in fact, reaches the level of manic energy or hyperactivity that is common in animated films; the movie's very much in line with the laidback surfer-dude philosophy of Big Z. It's not a hugely ambitious movie, but it meets its own modest goals nicely. The animation is quite good, and the water -- notoriously hard to animate realistically -- is the best I've yet seen in a computer-animated movie.

Smart voice casting sets the movie on the right track. James Woods is perfectly oily as the tournament promoter, and Mario Cantone precisely right as his put-upon assistant, whose spindly-legged walk is one of the movie's best running jokes; Diedrich Bader is full of pompous bluster as the reigning champ; Zooey Deschanel is sweet as Cody's romantic interest. (Only Jon Heder, as a surfing chicken, disappoints, which really isn't much of a surprise at this point in his inexplicable career.)

Best of all is Jeff Bridges, doing a penguin variation on The Dude from The Big Lebowski, all gruff charm and exasperation. Bridges and LaBeouf have terrific chemistry in their scenes together, aided immensely by the directors' decision to have their actors record their dialogue together, which is unusual for animation these days.

We're not going to remember Surf's Up as a classic in ten years, but it's a good-natured, sweetly charming little movie that'll keep you entertained.

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