Surf’s Up bobs up and down in the summer-entertainment ocean, sometimes riding the buoyant swells of a giggly stoner joke, and other times cautiously paddling well-tested corporate currents. This is, after all, an animated family movie about penguins — in the wake of March of the Happy Feet, they’re the Angelina Jolie of animals, both cute and admired everywhere. Plus, it’s about surfing, the Matthew McConaughey of shirtless American movie genres, always easy on the eyes. Lie on your back in a chlorinated pool — or on the carpeted floor of an L.A. office — and you can just about imagine the Hollywood studio sessions that hatched the casual-Fridays notion of cartoon penguins (among them the cocky young hero in need of fathering, the old-timer in need of rejuvenating, the bully in need of humbling, the doofus best friend in need of validating, the little-kid penguins in need of jokes involving pee and poo)…who enjoy competitive surfing…voiced by appealing movie stars…and buoyed by unmemorable pop songs.
And yet, as formulas go, the movie, team-written and -directed, sneaks in more tubular charm than the average adult ticket buyer might expect — or that very young attendees might appreciate. The conceit that a documentary crew accompanies newcomer surf talent Cody Maverick (a winning Shia LaBeouf) from Shiverpool, Antarctica, as he enters his first pro competition is a cool one, with room for a lot of gentle parody of reality TV conventions. Characters are regularly taken aside to comment on the action, and the omnipresent ”camera” catches glimpses of personalities not at their best, including Cody’s belittling older brother (Brian Posehn), an otter of a sports promoter (James Woods), and an agitated shorebird who’s a talent scout (Mario Cantone).
This not being Blue Crush, there are no girl penguins competing in the water at all — there’s only Lani (Zooey Deschanel) in the waves, a plucky lifeguard (and fellow waterfowl) who catches Cody’s eye. But there are two standout players who convey the movie’s laid-back lesson — learned at one’s peril — that having fun is more important than winning. One of them’s a chicken. Chicken Joe, to be specific, a surfer from fun-to-say Sheboygan, Wis., who is so naturally and genially loosey-goosey, and so stoner-sage in the pursuit of his own bliss, that he could be voiced only by Napoleon Dynamite‘s Jon Heder. And he does so, with dime bags of charm.
And then there’s the aging surfer legend, the Big Lebowski of the sport himself, a wise daddy-o of an out-of-shape penguin known locally as Geek. The dude could be voiced only by Jeff Bridges, and he makes this whole fabricated snack shack of a summer diversion work. Bridges puts warmth, patience, and innate cool into every line, like he was born to hang ten — a cat, er, penguin who truly has happy feet. B+