There isn’t much to “Surf’s Up” beyond a basic “winning isn’t everything” message, and you will have to contend with the fact that it’s another @&#*@ cartoon with @&*&@ penguins in it. But this laid-back story from former Disney artists Ash Brannon and Chris Buck is too beautifully animated to be dismissed, and too aw-shucks earnest to be disliked.
The premise is a first for a feature-length cartoon: It’s made to look like a documentary, with the characters being followed around by cameras and interviewed by unseen directors. Our hero is an Antarctic teenage penguin named Cody (Shia LaBeouf), who has been an avid surfer ever since longboard champ Zeke visited the island years ago. Zeke mysteriously disappeared a while back, but his legacy lives on. Now Cody is headed for the tropics for the annual Big Z memorial surfing championship, where he will compete with other penguins from around the world.
Or mostly penguins, anyway. There might be some puffins; it’s hard to tell them apart when they’re cartoons. And there’s definitely one chicken, a typically stoned-sounding surfer dude named Chicken Joe, voiced by the typically stoned-sounding Jon Heder. Chicken Joe and Cody become pals. The bad guy, meanwhile, is Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader — what is this, a “Napoleon Dynamite” reunion?), a vain, arrogant showoff who is the current champion surfer of the world. Or at least of the flightless-bird world. Do humans even exist in this universe? It is unclear.
Cody washes out during an exhibition run and winds up in the island’s inner jungle, where he is Obi-Wanned by an aging surfer penguin who calls himself Geek (Jeff Bridges). Geek teaches Cody the Zen of surfing and helps him let go of pride and competitiveness, all of which makes him a better surfer.
Things progress in the standard fashion. Cody has a crush on a lifeguard named Lani (Zooey Deschanel); Chicken Joe gets into shenanigans and hijinks befitting a comedic sidekick; Cody must face off against Tank Evans in the finals. There’s nothing special about most of the jokes. Some are amusing; some aren’t. The middle section of the film is curiously less focused on humor than you’d expect, though it’s still lightweight and engaging even when it’s not laugh-out-loud funny.
The one hook the film has going for it is the documentary concept, which is handled with impressive attention to detail. Much of the “camerawork” is made to look shaky, as if shot with hand-held cameras. Archival footage looks impressively old. They even remembered to show drops of water splashed on the camera lens during aquatic scenes. In the more cinematic scenes, the visuals are excellent, with beautiful tropical colors and astonishingly realistic surfing action.
The film’s humor, if occasionally a bit naughty — Chicken Joe refers to his “nuggets”; Tank’s mom asks if he’s polishing his trophies, with double entendre intended — is as easy-going as a luau. Nothing about the movie marks it as one for the ages, but it’s a pleasant and amusing enough way to spend a “Shrek”-free afternoon.
B- (1 hr., 22 min.; )