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Surf's Up

You've seen them march. You've seen them dance. Now see them surf their way through an hour and a half of pleasant enough jokes and predictable plot complications. Next we'll see them fight World War II - in a world of grey, they see only black and white.

By tackling the mockumentary form, Surf's Up does expand the language of animation. Directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck have worked wonders pushing their staff into creating the look of old Super 8 film and other formats. On a technical level, too, those waves look amazing.

But it just doesn't add up into anything all that spectacular. Whether dealing with penguins or not, an animated movie has to have something compelling beyond "wow, look what they can do in animation!"

Ostensibly a look behind-the-scenes at a penguin surfing competition, Surf's Up follows Cody Maverick (Shia LeBeouf) as he gets past his hero worship of a dead legend and learns to be a champion on his own. In the early parts of the film, the format works, cross-cutting from interviews with Cody's family to taking a look at the machinery behind the surf competition.

As often happens in mockumentaries, the script starts emphasizing plot over logical documentary progression. It sets up a real enemy in Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), the current champ, but long before Cody even knows he will get to surf. In capturing that moment of triumph, it does make it odd that the filmmakers would have tagged this kid who really isn't very good as the stuff of a documentary.

Aside from direct interviews, Cody also seems to be the only character aware that he has cameras on him. For one brief moment The Geek (Jeff Bridges) acknowledges a filmmaker, but for the most part, everyone behaves the way they would in a cartoon, not as if they were being caught live on camera.

Yet it has moments of charm. The "confessional" interviews, not standard in reality television, feel unforced. Three penguin chicks get interviewed, and they feel like real children.

Most of the characters, though, have a cookie-cutter feel to them, starting with Cody. Oh, heck, starting with his name. Part of it may be that they're overpowered by the voice actors. While promoter Reggie Belafonte has a clever character design, James Woods blasts through leaving us with no surprises.

Two major exceptions: Mario Cantone as a little curlew talent scout and Jon Heder actually burying himself in a stoner chicken. Seriously, Heder comes across one-note onscreen, but he really frees himself up when doing voicework. His Chicken Joe occasionally lifts out of stereotype, and is almost unrecognizably voiced.

Still, the twists and turns of the plot really aren't twists and turns, borrowed from many earlier and better animated features. Nothing here will surprise you, except that maybe that water really does look real.

If you have to see a children's movie this weekend, catch the wave and go over to see Shrek 3 again.


Derek McCaw

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