Christopher Guest meets wave-crushing penguins in "Surf's Up," a comedic homage to such real-life surfing classics as "Endless Summer" and "Riding Giants." The film's concept is ingeniously one-of-a-kinda computer-animated faux-documentary, complete with grainy stock footage, off-the-cuff interviews, and the occasional boom mike sneaking into the top of shots. This imaginative style sometimes makes the movie look a little chintzy and thrown-together, but that's the point; at least in aesthetic appearance, this is without the sleek beauty and wonder of 2006's superior "Happy Feet
." "Surf's Up" has a lot going for it in its general setup, so it's a shame to have to report that the story and script are about as disappointingly generic as they come.
A documentary crew has traveled to the Antarctican town of Shiverpool to chronicle the unlikely journey of 17-year-old Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), an aspiring surfer who is hand-picked by talent scout bird Mike Abromowitz (Mario Cantone) to compete in Big Z's Memorial Surf Off on the island of Pen Gu. This contest has special meaning to Cody, since he once had an inspiring run-in as a child with surfing idol Big Z (Jeff Bridges), who tragically perished amidst the crashing waves. Once on Pen Gu, go-getter Cody gets a bitter taste of reality when it seems as if he won't be any match for cocky top surfer Tank Evans (Deidrich Bader). Cody's sudden hopelessness takes a sudden turn for the better when he discovers that Big Z isn't dead at all, but a recluse who disappeared from the public eye out of fear of letting down his fans. With the fatherly friendship and guidance of Big Z, Cody begins training for the championship games, determined to prove that he has what it takes to play with the big boys.
As directed by Ash Brannon (co-director of 1999's "Toy Story 2
") and Chris Buck (1999's "Tarzan
") and written by Lisa Addario, Christian Darren, Don Rhymer (2006's "Deck the Halls
") and Joe Syracuse, "Surf's Up" takes a swell ideathe whole mockumentary aspectand then wastes it on a forgettable plot and one-dimensional characters. There is some questionable adult humor for the grown-upsTank Evans practically orgasms as he talks about "polishing" his trophies, all named after womenbut for the most part, nearly every scene ends in a juvenile bathroom gag. Farts, urine, poopit's all on near-constant display, going so far as to set a romantic scene between Cody and fetching lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel) in a lake of glow-worm feces. The movie isn't very funny or clever, and the dramatic interludes involving Cody's and Big Z's respective doubts of confidence and ultimate moments of triumph are rushed afterthoughts.
The characters aren't all that they could be because the script shades them in broad strokes, but several of the actors show spunk in voicing them. Shia LaBeouf (2007's "Disturbia
") is never seen, of course, but his performance as Cody Maverick ably shows off his natural charisma and winning personality. He brings nuance to the role even when it isn't on the page. As love interest Lani, Zooey Deschanel (2007's "Bridge to Terabithia
") is sassy, earnest and likable. Finally, John Heder (2007's "Blades of Glory
") and Mario Cantone steal some cute moments as the naive Chicken Joe and ridiculed small-fry bird Mike Abomowitz.
As far as penguin-centric animated movies go, "Happy Feet
" has "Surf's Up" beat by a mile. The former picture was epic in its scope and intentions, while the latter is like a tiny appetizer that doesn't go very far to satiate one's appetite. Kids will be diverted enough, but even they will be able to spot its deficiencies in relation to the much better family fare out there. "Surf's Up" isn't awful, but it is languid and derivative, putting to waste its documentary-like angle by relying on paint-by-numbers plotting and comedy that is in short supply of wit.