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Surf's Up Review

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Teen penguin Cody (LaBeouf) longs to be a surf champ like the late, great Big Z. On tropical Pen Gu Island he enters the contest of a lifetime, but a bodacious lady lifeguard (Deschanel) and a hulking hermit (Bridges) teach him that surfing isn’t about winning...

★★★★

The 21st Century saw a new genre arise to challenge the Western, the action movie and the David Lynch Baffler. The Penguiner is a flexible template: after the documentary (March Of The Penguins) and the postmodern musical (Happy Feet), it’s time for the surfer flick. No, really. As Surf’s Up’s intro reminds us, penguins have been kings of the breakers from days of yore (one is glimpsed careering merrily down Japanese artist Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off Kanagawa).

Surf’s Up may be a computer animation, but it’s worth watching even if you swore off CGI critters after Chicken Little. Appropriately, it succeeds by practicing what Jeff Bridges’ benign, flippered drop-out preaches: have lots of fun, and don’t worry about winning. Surf’s Up doesn’t feel like it’s out to blow our minds with razzle-dazzle software, although the wave effects in the too-brief climactic scenes are stunning. Very different in feel from Happy Feet, which gets cheekily dissed (“Singing and dancing? Yeah, right!”), Surf’s Up is closer to Lilo & Stitch: a smart, endearing, relatively small-scale comedy.

It’s also a mockumentary that seems to have borrowed some tricks from Blighty’s Creature Comforts, though Nick Park fans know that penguins are treacherous, jewel-thieving bastards. Penguins and other creatures squirm in awkward vox pops; an odious otter promoter (James Woods) has his naughty bits digitally mosaiced in the bathtub; and your eye is drawn to the back-of-frame business in the best Aardman fashion.

Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck (ex-Pixar and Disney), the film follows an over-familiar course as teen penguin Cody (Shia LaBeouf) jousts for glory and suffers a surfing humiliation that’s cruelly but hilariously replayed from all angles, before he finally finds a dad in Bridges to replace the one he lost. But the scenes between Bridges and LaBeouf have real heart, love-interest Zooey Deschanel is charismatic even when she’s sidelined, and Jon Heder jollies things along as a lunkhead chicken connecting with the jabbering natives (“Yum yum!”).

Shame on America for rejecting this unpretentious gem, a dead duck at the box office, which finds leisurely space to develop its characters without slowing to a Cars crawl. If the film fails here, we’ll know who to blame: that git Feathers McGraw.

A charming computer cartoon, lifted by Bridges’ Lebowski-like performance and a truly funny mockumentary framework.

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