Penguins have triumphed at the box office and at the Oscars for two years in a row, so it’s no surprise to find another flock at the multiplex this summer.
Unfortunately, “Surf’s Up,” which features the novelty of surfing penguins, is neither as dramatic as “March of the Penguins” nor as spectacular a singing-dancing vehicle as “Happy Feet.” Expect no Busby Berkeley imitations here.
Indeed, the hero, Cody Maverick, admits early in this feature-length cartoon that he’s not into singing or dancing at all. A native of Shiverpool, Antarctica, he spends his spare time preparing to compete at Pen Gu Island’s annual Big Z Memorial Surf-Off.
While Cody’s story is engaging enough, it lacks the must-see quality those earlier penguin epics suggested. Sony Pictures’ animation is serviceable rather than impressive, the script thins out quickly, and the directors, Ash Brannon and Chris Buck (the latter co-directed Disney’s “Tarzan”), rely heavily on a rock soundtrack to pump up some sequences.
This works well with Green Day’s “Welcome to Paradise,” which accompanies Cody’s arrival at the island, but the use of Pearl Jam and other groups isn’t as carefully tied to the visuals. Too often it sounds as if the animators left a radio on and accidentally used whatever songs turned up.
Presented as a mockumentary in the “Spinal Tap” tradition, “Surf’s Up” begins with a traditional documentary narration beefing up the history of penguin surfers. Battered old “archival” film clips present the legend of Big Z, a super-surfer who apparently died in a contest many years before.
The characters are often aware that they’re being recorded, and they sometimes try to present a cleaned-up version of themselves. However, the chief villain, Tank Evans (voice by Diedrich Bader), is such a blowhard that he can’t help polishing his many trophies for the cameras. Just the opposite is Cody’s friend, publicity-shy Geek (Jeff Bridges), who wants nothing to do with surfing contests or the sports-addled network SPEN.
Shia LaBeouf, fresh from the surprise box-office success of “Disturbia,” provides the peppy, can-do voice of the hero: an unreliable narrator who sometimes tells one story while the animators are presenting another. The tendency is most pronounced when Cody learns the secret identity of another character and pretends to be cool about it. While he’s telling his version, we hear one thing and see quite another.
It’s the single most accomplished episode in the picture, which would be more effective if it relied less on its predictable plot and more on such character-revealing touches. Also strong — and quite funny — is a sequence in which Cody and Geek become obnoxiously obsessive about the proper way to carve a surfboard from scratch.
Too much of the rest of the film is filled with questions that have been answered before they’re posed. Will the lifeguard Lana (Zooey Deschanel) hook up with Cody? Will Geek’s mentoring of Cody bring him back into contact with fellow humans and surfers? Will Cody learn to relax and trust The Force (or something an awful lot like it)?