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Surf's Up

(2007) ** 1/2 Pg
85 min. Columbia Pictures. Directors: Ash Brannon, Chris Buck. Cast: Jeff Bridges, Shia LaBeouf, Zooey Deschanel, James Woods, Jon Heder.

What's black and white and brings in the green? An animated penguin movie, kiddies! And thus the penguin craze begun with March of the Penguins and continued by Happy Feet now teaches us how to "hang six." The CGI-animated Surf's Up takes the form of a mockumentary, starring a teen penguin who sheepishly confesses he can't sing or dance.

Instead, 17-year-old Cody Maverick of Antarctica rides waves, and oddly, he's one of many penguins who do (aside from a stray surfing chicken, it's surfing penguins all the way). As voiced by rising star Shia LaBeouf, Cody's in way over his head, but he gets a mentor—and the father he never had—in reclusive surf legend "Big Z" (Jeff Bridges). He's been in hiding for a decade, but reluctantly comes out of retirement to coach Cody, who's never forgotten Big Z's once-upon-a-time advice: "Never give up and find a way, 'cause that's what winners do."

When not flirting with a lifeguard named Lani (Zooey Deschanel) or befriending the aforementioned Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), Cody engages Big Z in contentious but productive arguments. Eventually, Cody learns the zen of surfing: prioritize love of the sport and forget about empty concerns like competition and impressing SPEN (the Sports Penguin Entertainment Network). Meanwhile, lesser light Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader) has a sexual thing for his large, golden trophies (his "ladies"). A bit randy for a kids' movie, but what the hey.

James Woods does his usual fast-talking shtick as promoter Reggie Belafonte, and bonus points for casting surf legends Kelly Slater and Rob Machado (as themselves) and comic Brian Posehn as Cody's laconic, jealous older brother Glen. Nothing here burns with energy, but neither will Surf's Up make your head ache with brusque animation or screeching celebrity voices—like its aging-hippie father figure, the movie just wants to go about its business unbothered and without bothering anyone else. Faint praise, yes, but also a somewhat majestically plumed bird amidst the flock of bird-crap-colored seagulls that are the CGI critter comedies of the last few years.

Many of the gambits employed by directors Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (Tarzan) work, including the naturalistic voice acting and the clever mockumentary touches, like fake archival footage with film scratches and washed-out color. The plot is formulaic and some of the gags overly familiar (if I have to see one more animated diversion about chanting, war-painted natives threatening to boil the funny sidekick, I'm out), but the mightily impressive animation of natural landscapes and killer waves is enough to batten down the flaws.

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