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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


It seems like once or twice a year, we get dueling movies on the same subject: two Truman Capote biopics, two “asteroid hitting the earth” thrillers, two Wyatt Earp westerns, etc. Right now, we have two animated penguin movies. The first (Happy Feet) won last year’s Best Animated Film Oscar, and it came hot on the heels of March of the Penguins, which won the Best Documentary Oscar the year before. The new one is Surf’s Up, which is not likely to win any Oscars, but is still fun, even if it does seem a little familiar in the midst of all this cinematic penguin madness.

One thing that sets this movie apart is its style. Filmed to look like a documentary (kind of like NBC’s “The Office”), Surf’s Up follows Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LeBeouf), a young penguin who dreams of being a professional surfer. As a child, he had the chance to meet his hero, Big Z, who gave him some inspirational advice before tragically wiping out in a big match against an uber-competitive rival named Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader). Cody leaves his arctic home for the beach, where he trains for competition and falls for a girl penguin called Lani (Zooey Deschanel).

Lani introduces him to her uncle Geek (Jeff Bridges), an overweight surfer dude of a penguin who knows a few things about making boards and riding waves. Later, Cody discovers that Geek is actually Big Z, who faked his own death to avoid disappointing fans and has been hiding ever since. This comes as something of a surprise to Cody, who resents the quitter’s attitude of his hero. Nevertheless, they inspire each other. Big Z helps Cody train for a big competition that will pit him against the merciless Tank, as well as his buddy Chicken Joe (Jon Heder). Cody helps Big Z find his way back to living life.

Surf’s Up does all the things you’d expect an animated movie to do. It imparts a good message for young viewers, it contains enough sly humor to entertain adults, and it maintains an overall atmosphere of fun. I like the fact that the movie doesn’t take itself all too seriously. Whoever came up with the premise of surfing penguins clearly didn’t care about realism or plausibility. The sheer wackiness of the concept clues you in that the film is intending only to be a lark.

I laughed pretty regularly at the characters’ antics, particularly those of the gangly Chicken Joe, who is laid back almost to the point of obliviousness. I did not realize it was Jon Heder providing his voice until the end credits, and the actor is very funny in the role. Shia LeBeouf is also good. Although he only uses his voice, this has to be considered a strong follow-up to his work in the hit Disturbia. Unlike a lot of name stars in animated features, he takes the role seriously, investing Cody with a nice mixture of youthful insecurity and determination. My favorite character, though, is Big Z. I’m sure I won’t be the only person to point this out, but the great Jeff Bridges brings the same sort of hippie vibe to Big Z as he brought to his character “the Dude” in the Coen Brothers’ Big Lebowski. It’s a very clever turn by an actor who isn’t afraid to take chances in a kids’ movie.

Surf’s Up can be enjoyed by kids and grown-ups alike, so long as you aren’t sick and tired of penguins by now. (And, realistically, that may be something of a barrier to the movie’s box office success.) I don’t think it ever reaches the comic and storytelling exquisiteness of the Pixar films or the first two Shrek movies. It’s good, but not necessarily the kind of thing you will want to see again and again and again. Still, a solid, enjoyable family film is always something to celebrate. Surf’s Up looks fantastic, has terrific performances, and offers plenty of laughs as well as a nice moral at the end. And Bridges’ voice work alone is worth the price of admission.

( out of four)

Surf's Up is rated PG for mild language and some rude humor. The running time is 1 hour and 25 minutes.

To learn more about this film, check out Surf's Up

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