Voiced by Hollywood “It” boy Shia LaBeouf, the inexperienced Cody gets predictable help along the way from a mysterious old timer (Jeff Bridges, reprising “The Dude” for preschoolers), a goofy friend (Napoleon Dynamite’s Jon Heder) and a token love interest (a charming Zooey Deschanel). Standing in Cody’s path is the hilariously narcissistic penguin surf champ (“Drew Carey” alum Diedrich Bader) and the scheming promoter (the forever-smarmy James Woods).
Apparently, it’s illegal to do an animated film these days without parodying some aspect of pop culture, so the target this time around is surf documentaries like Endless Summer and Riding Giants. Thankfully, the movie parrots them brilliantly, from slo-mo shots of surfers gliding through crashing tubes to handheld interviews of half-baked penguins waxing philosophic about the sport’s existential truths.
The filmmakers also steal a page from Nick Park’s Creature Comforts, creating a spontaneous feel by matching improvisational, off-the-cuff human voices to shuffling, camera-shy animated characters.
Though the plot is worn-out and a smart 7-year-old can probably see “the big twist” coming a mile away, the visuals, not the script, are the attraction here. The programmers over at Sony have pretty much rendered real water useless, as the photo-realistic shots of penguins paddling over giant, rolling surf are nothing short of sublime.
Why exactly the story calls for penguins to be the main characters still isn’t clear to me, but at least we can take solace in knowing that when global warming melts all the real penguins into extinction, we’ll still have these cute little animated ones safely stored on hard drives for future generations to enjoy.
Surf’s Up releases in theaters June 8.