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''Surf's Up'' directors catch the movie-penguin wave

”Surf’s Up” directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck chat about the wave of movie penguins that hit while they were in production, working with Shia LaBeouf and Jeff Bridges, and what’s up with that ”stoner” chicken

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LaBeouf: Steve Granitz/WireImage.com

Have audiences had their fill of penguins? After all, they’ve already gone cuckoo for the animals in DreamWorks’ CG flick Madagascar. Grosses were also high for the live-action denizens of March of the Penguins (watch a brilliant French TV trailer for it here), and for the ”motion-capture” singing and tap-dancing CG penguins of last winter’s Happy Feet. But trust me, it will be a damn shame if folks don’t also flock to theaters to embrace Surf’s Up, a smart, very funny mockumentary that follows a young penguin surfer named Cody (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) on an odyssey to meet his surfing idol, ”Big Z” (voiced by Jeff Bridges.) (Click here for Lisa Schwarzbaum’s review.) We caught up with the flick’s talented ‘toon-vet directors, Ash Brannon (a former Pixar artist and codirector of Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (an ex-Disney guy, who codirected the technically brilliant Tarzan). Here’s what they had to say about poop jokes, getting Jeff Bridges to act in a cartoon, and just how stoned the stoner chicken in Surf’s Up really is.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: A talking-animal CG mockumentary — now there’s a genre splice we haven’t seen yet.
CHRIS BUCK: Our struggle has been to convince others [in Sony Pictures’ marketing departments] that kids would ”get it.” But we never really worried about it. Kids are growing up with tons of reality TV, and they’re really used to the documentary style. It’s not foreign to them; it’s a standard form of entertainment.
ASH BRANNON: At previews we’ve been at with kids, they get everything.

So you’re coming out at the tail end, as it were, of all these other penguin movies. Given how long it makes to produce a CG feature, that must suck.
BUCK: We started on Surf’s Up before we even knew about any of those other movies. [Producer and former Disney animation hand] Chris Jenkins actually came up with the idea about five years ago. Ash and I got on it about three-and-a-half years ago, and by the time March of the Penguins came out, we’d already designed all our characters and were pretty set with our story. We did wind up looking at some parts of March as visual reference. But we knew nothing about Happy Feet till maybe two years ago.
BRANNON: By that time, we were past the point of no return. We weren’t going to change the characters into squirrels or kangaroos or something else. We just had faith in the fact that our movie is different. When you get past the penguins, it’s a character story. After people see it, they don’t call it a penguin movie. They hone in on the surrogate-father-and-son story.

Did you change any aspects of Surf’s Up in reaction to these other films?
BRANNON: My wife had a baby last August, so I haven’t seen a single movie since then. I didn’t see Happy Feet, but Chris did. We put in one specific nod to Happy Feet, where an interviewer asks Cody [Shia LaBeouf] near the beginning of the movie if he sings or dances and he says, ”No, I just surf.” But visually, we’re totally different from the earlier films. We’re out of Antarctica in the first 15 minutes, and the rest of it all takes place in a warm tropical environment. Which isn’t so crazy, because lots of penguin species live in tropical environments — in Australia, Africa, and South America. Only a few species live in Antarctica. That’s my educational portion of the interview.

Where did the whole idea of surfing penguins come from? It sounds like some lame marketer’s idea of blending extreme sports with penguin flicks.
BUCK: Well, some penguins actually do surf. They surf standing up, on their feet. I’m not kidding. There has been footage of them actually doing this.

Wow — that’s one for the DVD. So Shia is about to be a huge movie star, but he wasn’t when you signed him to voice Cody, the teen ne’er-do-well whose penguin mom doesn’t believe in his surfing abilities.
BRANNON: It’s a parallel to the Tom Hanks situation with the original Toy Story. Tom started recording the voice tracks as Woody the cowboy doll before he’d won two Oscars [for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump], so by the time Toy Story came out he was this huge movie star. Shia had done a Disney TV show [”Even Stevens”], the movie Holes, and [the second season of] Project Greenlight when we saw him. Our casting director put his voice in front of us. He was so great to audition. He drove himself to the studio, came in with some fast food in a bag. No entourage, nothing like that. And that manner of his never changed, even as he’s gotten Transformers and Indiana Jones 4 and all these other projects. He puts across that adolescent angst that Cody’s going through in the movie. And pairing him with Jeff Bridges really worked — the upstart and the veteran. We recorded them together as often as we could, for almost all their [animated] scenes together.

NEXT PAGE: ”We knew we were gonna get [Bridges] when he called, while things were still being negotiated, and said he’d been reading The Zen of Sailing.”