Head for the beach, dude, ‘Surf’s Up!’

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

I was born and raised in a Southern California beach town well before, if you can imagine that far back in prehistory, surfing got to be a big thing. So I have always thought of it as being just something stoners do instead of looking for a job.

And an animated surfing movie about penguins? Man, haven’t you had enough penguins? I mean, those tappy “Happy Feet” are still echoing in the darkened auditorium.

That was approximately my attitude the other day when I rounded up a tribe of grandkids and headed for the Bijou to see “Surf’s Up,” currently playing at the Regal Staunton Mall Cinema.

I was in no mood to be diddled with. But boy, was I surprised. While the grandkids (ages 4, 9 and 10) enjoyed the mild bathroom humor and sporadic action sequences, I found it to be a sterling example of those rare “animated movie for adults” ducks. In other words, it was enjoyable for everyone from beginning to end.

And even the occasional mild toilet humor was tolerable. Because it came from penguins, I guess.

This is only Sony’s second full-length animated project (their first was last year’s “Open Season”), but it is eye-popping. The textures – hey, you need a lot of texture in a beach movie – are outstanding, and by jingies, there is enough character development to please us grownups.

Yes! Penguins that were more that just cute!

The story, told almost Christopher Guestly, takes place at a memorial Penguin Surfing Championship and is presented mockumentary-style with many of the characters speaking directly to the camera. It concerns a young Rockhopper penguin surfing dude (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) and his hero, a legendary surfer penguin known as “Big Z” and voiced with way-laid-back hilarious cool by Jeff Bridges.

Shia’s requisite sidekick, Chicken Joe (a goofball fowl surfer from Sheboygan) provides plenty of wacky laughs and is played by “Napoleon Dynamite” star Jon Heder. His encounter with a tribe of wild aboriginal penguins is a film highlight.

There’s a comely gal penguin (Zoey Deschanel), a big ugly surfer villain penguin (Diedrich Bader), and as the big Surf-Off approaches, our lil’ hero needs the help of his own champion to win – or at least, triumph in his own way.

That’s all pretty standard stuff, but all the extras, the throwaway lines, even the message, will likely sail right over the heads of many preteens. But don’t get me wrong: they’ll enjoy what’s there for them, and you’ll enjoy what’s there for you.

I don’t want to spill any more of the beans. There are some awfully cute little nuggets to nibble on. For even though the plot points are cookie-cutter, shooting it as a mock documentary keeps everything fresh, and you’re bound to enjoy the way they toss in TV-oriented clever little asides with the likes of a wink-wink promoter voiced by James Wood. ESPN even gets a well-deserved little elbow nudge.

I think the most difficult thing about this film becoming a success is getting people who are fans of “serious” films to see it. Believe it or not, even the body language of these animated creatures has been worked out very subtly. It’s an animated film that I actually want to watch again.

Nope, “Surf’s Up” hasn’t changed my mind about the worth of surfing. I still think this particular obsession is just an excuse to keep from participating in society. Unless it’s done by philosophical penguins, of course. And I still think we’ve had enough penguin movies. But I’m ready to be proved wrong on both counts. Again.

Meanwhile, Back at the Dixie:

If you missed “Away From Her,” the much-acclaimed indy masterpiece about one of the heartbreaks of aging, put your motorized wheelchair in high gear and head for the Dixie. Already an award-winner at international film festivals, this bittersweet little film will end up amongst the classics of its kind.

 

Carl Larsen is a regular contributor to The New Dominion. Look for his At the Movies column on Mondays.

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