Dirs: Ash Brannon & Chris Buck. US. 2006. 85mins.

Spry, colourful and unusually styled, the animated movie Surf’s Up attempts to extend the recent public surge in affection for penguins, telling the buoyant, reciprocal story of a mentor and pupil who ultimately each show each other sides of life they’ve both been missing out on. Making substantial use of ascendant young star Shia LaBeouf’s personality, the likeable production puts a loose-limbed, mostly agreeable spin on a story with a familiar for-love-of-the-sport moral.

The obvious, if commercial high-end, subject matter benchmarks for Surf’s Up are 2005’s $125m-grossing documentary March Of The Penguins and last season’s $380m worldwide smash Happy Feet, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film. Strange as it sounds, though, Surf’s Upexists at the unlikely intersection between those films and recent arthouse surf-culture documentaries like Riding Giants and Step Into Liquid. It’s a kids’ movie through and through, but also adheres in straight-faced fashion to a mockumentary format that could prove daunting for younger filmgoers.

Releasing between higher-profile animated summer fare like Shrek The Third and Ratatouille, Surf’s Up will suffer a bit from a branding point-of-view, and may have trouble luring the sort of consistent repeat business that drives such genre blockbusters. Still, penguins’ popularity doesn’t seem to be flagging, and even relatively mildly embraced recent animated animal pics like Open Season, Chicken Little, Barnyard and Flushed Away have all rung up $65m or more Stateside, frequently much more.

With bigger franchise family fare nipping at its heels (Warner Bros’ Nancy Drew on June 15, Universal’s Evan Almighty on June 22), though, Surf’s Up seems to have both plenty of competition and a small window for success. International audiences, meanwhile, have of late proven generally more receptive to new animated fare, and with smart overseas positioning Surf’s Up should see slightly greater returns there.

Unfolding as a character-focused documentary, the film chronicles headstrong teenage penguin Cody Maverick (LaBeouf), who leaves his Antarctic hometown of Shiverpool to follow his dream of becoming a successful surfer. Befriended along the way by the distractible Chicken Joe (Heder), Cody arrives at Pen Gu Island just in advance of the Big Z Memorial Surf Off, an annual competition named for Cody’s idol, and enthusiastically promoted by spike-haired, self-centered otter Reggie Belafonte (Woods).

After meeting cute with lifeguard Lani Aliikai (Deschanel), Cody immediately faces a setback in his efforts to dethrone the preening, jerky reigning champion, Tank Evans (Bader). Cast into exile for a few days, Cody is taken under the wing of a laid-back, hermetic surfer (Bridges) who becomes his mentor. With this help, Cody learns to balance his desire to win with the pure pleasure of surfing, and the friendships and enjoyment that this affords.

Co-directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck are animation veterans, the former a co-director on Toy Story 2 and the latter the director of Tarzan, which was known for its pioneering use of ‘deep canvas’ technique. Full of clear, rounded and lightly detailed beachfront work, the animation style on display in Surf’s Up is exacting without being completely photorealistic. It’s a blend of nicely choreographed action and lurking-narrator-style footage nipped from any number of popular reality television shows.

The film-makers make amusing use of canted angles, ironic framing and camera pans, off-screen questions and occasional broken-glass and wet lens effects. On the other hand, this mode of expression may prove less easily graspable to the PG-rated picture’s chief demographic age range.

It’s the more straightforward footage, meanwhile, that allows for moments of finer visual showcase, be it in the convincing mist swirling around a reef or the interesting use of perspective, which in one bit finds wooden shavings from a surf board being planed directly toward the camera.

While shunning the over-reliance on big sound effects that marks many kids’ flicks, the picture does make certain to include a number of bodily function jokes. It also features a peppy modern soundtrack, driven by toe-tapping alt-rock tunes from acts like Green Day, the Romantics, Incubus and the New Radicals.

On the narrative front, not much time is spent explaining the particulars of the movie’s penguin surf culture, or why no other animals, other than Chicken Joe, participate in the competition; one either submits to the premise in somewhat wholesale fashion or succumbs to grumpiness. Of course, the story at the movie’s center is a tried and true chestnut, but the ostensible authentic camera - and thus the slight coercion of more traditionally scripted moments - allows for a certain authorial stamp of authenticity. One feels Surf’s Up characters are real.

Fresh off of a major spring hit in the form of Disturbia, Shia LaBeouf’s vocal performance in particular showcases his own wordy, alternately casual and acerbic personality. Similarly, the film’s other performances allow for the actors to bring to the fore elements of their own individuality.

Zooey Deschanel is unaffectedly charming, and Jon Heder trades on the doofy obliviousness he’s largely milked since Napoleon Dynamite. And while Jeff Bridges’ work isn’t a direct extension of The Big Lebowski’s ‘Dude,’ it does draw upon some of the same sleepy rhythms of aimless amiability.

Production company/backer
Sony Pictures Animation

US distribution
Columbia Pictures

International distribution
Sony Pictures Releasing International

Christopher Jenkins

Don Rhymer and Ash Brannon & Chris Buck & Christopher Jenkins, from a story by Christopher Jenkins and Christian Darren

Production design
Paul Lasaine

Ivan Bilancio

Mychael Danna

Main cast (voices)
Shia LaBeouf
Jeff Bridges
Zooey Deschanel
Jon Heder
James Woods
Diedrich Bader
Mario Cantone
Brian Posehn