They've been portrayed as gung-ho military commandos, tap-dancing ecologists, and fatalistic slaves to nature. Now animated penguins can add wobbly wave-riders to the list.
But unlike its predecessors, "Surf's Up," the latest CGI entry in the booming penguin oeuvre, is actually more in sync with "Riding Giants," Stacy Peralta's 2004 documentary ode to the sport, than with George Miller's Oscar-winning sing-a long "Happy Feet." Shooting in a faux hand-held style reminiscent of a Christopher Guest mockumentary, co-directors and animation veterans Ash Brannon ("Toy Story 2") and Chris Buck ("Tarzan") cleverly include reality show-like confessionals, accidentally dipping boom mikes, and flippers to the camera during intimate moments to enhance and make the most of the standard-issue awkward-outsider-finds-acceptance plot.
After a brief introduction to the history of surfing, accompanied by tinny music and scratchy, sepia-toned mock-film of penguins zipping about through the centuries, the camera finds its main subject in freewheeling Rockhopper penguin Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf). A native of Shiverpool, Antarctica, young Cody would much rather catch a wave on his ice-slab surfboard than help his mother and brother with their egg-sitting and fish-slicing duties. (When one of the cameramen, appropriately voiced by the directors, asks, "Do you have any other skills besides surfing?" Cody knowingly jokes, "Like singing or dancing? Yeah, right!")
Cody's salvation comes in the form of a fussy talent scout (Mario Cantone ) who reluctantly lets the wannabe champion hitch a ride and participate in tropical Pen Gu Island's annual surf-off. Before Cody can get his official wave on, however, he wipes out while challenging superstar Tank Evans and must be resuscitated by comely lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel ) and her reclusive uncle, known only as Geek (Jeff Bridges) . Might Geek actually be Cody's childhood surfing hero Big Z, assumed dead after disappearing decades earlier? Will Cody realize fun is more important than trophies? Do fuzzy, wide-eyed baby penguins make tween girls squeal?
Though less preachy than "Happy Feet," "Surf's Up" also delivers a less sophisticated message, sticking to simple and easily digestible aphorisms ("Winning isn't everything," "Never give up"). And while not rife with mile-a-minute pop culture references like the "Shrek" movies, it delivers enough edge and inside jokes (real-life surfer Kelly Slater reporting for SPEN, the Surfing Penguin Entertainment Network, anyone?) between the bodily function jokes to keep parents as involved as their excited tykes.
The cleverest reference, sure to sail over kids' heads, is the spot-on casting of Bridges as the voice of Big Z. Playing off his "Dude" character in the Coen brothers' cult fave "The Big Lebowski," Bridges speaks lazily but sagely as the roly-poly ex-champion. LaBeouf and Deschanel are appropriately chipper and energetic as the young penguin pair, and James Woods and Jon Heder round out the flock of appealing vocal actors as, respectively, an otter promoter with both Don King's demeanor and upright hair and a constantly stoned surfer chicken.
Between the breezy surfer culture and insider references, "Surf's Up" is the most colorful of the penguin 'toons to date, both figuratively and literally. Set away from the pale icebergs of Antarctica, the animators, clearly excited to be expanding their color palette, design Pe Gu Island with attention to detail, conjuring up massive waves and swells with breath taking accuracy. While the simple narrative can't match the film's sparkling visuals, the result is far from a wipeout.
Michelle Kung can be reached by e-mail at michellekung@gmail .com.