Who needs to fly when you can catch a wave?
Penguins, those new rock stars of the animal world, continue their winning streak with Surf's Up, an animated mockumentary that imagines a world where the famously flightless birds are as much into hanging 10 as they are into eating fish.
Done in a sort of Errol Morris-meets-Endless Summer style, Surf's Up is the story of a penguin named Cody Maverick (voice of Shia LaBeouf). While being interviewed by an unseen narrator and film crew (although the occasional boom mike does slip into the frame), Cody's story unfolds.
Raised in the shadow of his bullying, much-larger brother, abandoned by his father (who had the misfortune of being eaten by a killer whale), doted on by his mother, Cody was a penguin pretty much without direction until he met The Big Z.
Who's The Big Z? Obviously, you don't follow penguin surfer culture, for then you'd know about the legendary bird - a dude of legendary stature who, during a brief visit to Cody's hometown of Shiverpool, gave the youngster both a medallion and a mantra. "Never give up," Z tells Cody, who never does, even after his hero is killed in a surfing accident.
The years pass, and Cody concentrates on his dream of surfer superstardom. Finally, his big chance arrives and he's off to the penguin World Surfing Championship, broadcast live on SPEN (the Sports Penguin Entertainment Network).
Surf's Up benefits from a great voice cast, beginning with LaBeouf, whose unaffected tone fits a bird who's not nearly as brave (or as confident) as he lets on. Zooey Deschanel, too, brings a certain youthful world-wariness to her role as the voice of Lani, a penguin lifeguard who takes a liking to Cody.
Best of all is Jeff Bridges as the voice of Geek, a laid-back philosopher-penguin who becomes Cody's low-key guru, mentoring him in the ways of the wave.
There's a welcome geniality to Surf's Up that serves it well, and the documentary style enables it to poke fun at all manner of pop culture, from sports networks to Entertainment Tonight-style reporting. The filmmakers also give Cody a great supporting cast, including a stoner chicken - Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), the greatest surfer to ever come out of Wisconsin - as his best bud. And there's a trio of preadolescent penguins who turn up repeatedly in the interviews, stealing the spotlight every time.
The designers behind Surf's Up give the film a warmth that's often missing from today's computer-dominated animation; the water sequences are especially impressive and beautiful. True, some of the allusions may go over kids' heads, but as Shrek has proven three times over, that's not a big problem.
As for adults - hey, any film that references everything from the Beatles to The Big Lebowski deserves serious respect.