Recent ads for the rip-curling penguin movie “Surf’s Up” call it “one of the most original animated films ever,” which is kind of laughable, right? Didn’t we just go through this with the singing and dancing penguins of “Happy Feet,” and before that with the Special Ops commando penguins of “Madagascar”?
One wonders what Hollywood has planned next for the flightless critters.
Quadriplegic rugby? Same-sex pairs figure skating?
While not entirely original, “Surf’s Up” is no wipeout. It is, admittedly, the first animated penguin movie done in the style of a faux surf documentary — a clever little contrivance that makes for blissfully predictable family viewing.
The star of this notional “exposé” is Cody Maverick, a runty, fatherless bird who surfs the meager swells of Antarctica and dreams of following in the claw steps of his hero, legendary penguin surfer Big Z. Voiced by the suddenly ubiquitous Shia LaBeouf (“Disturbia,” “Transformers”), Cody looks in the camera and says all the things that hungry amateurs usually say in these up-close-and-personal sports pieces: “Surfing’s my life. This is my ticket outta here.” Meanwhile, Mom vomits up another dinner of partially digested fish meat.
Blessed with more gumption than talent, Cody hitches a ride off the continent on the back of a blue whale and finds his way to Pen Gu Island — the bustling tropical home of the Penguin World Surfing Championship. Naturally, Cody is outmatched at first (“Surf’s Up” owes more of a creative debt to the 1987 surf soap “North Shore” than it does to “Endless Summer”) but eventually is taken under wing by a burned-out ex-champion and island recluse named Geek (Jeff Bridges) who instructs the young chick in the finer art of hanging three.
Visually, “Surf’s Up” is a stunner, with animation almost photorealistic in its aqueous crispness (I love the shot of Geek trailing his fin across the inside of a wave and winking at the camera, as long board hot dogs are prone to do). There’s also the usual, post-“Shrek” quota of double-entendre — the villain, Tank (Diedrich Bader), spends hours “polishing his trophies” — and a chaste romance for Cody with a comely penguin lifeguard (the always delightful Zooey Deschanel). Jon Heder (“Napoleon Dynamite”) sounds fried as a sunaddled piece of poultry called Chicken Joe.
Ultimately, though, it’s the casting of Bridges that shoots “Surf’s Up” through the curl. Performing what amounts to a slight variation of his cocktailsipping slacker from “The Big Lebowski,” the four-time Oscar nominee projects a richly human plaintiveness into his performance. And that’s where good animation starts.