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Friday, June 8, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Movie Review

OK, it's penguins again, but give "Surf's Up" a chance

Special to The Seattle Times

Movie review 3 stars


Showtimes and trailer

"Surf's Up," with the voices of Jeff Bridges, Shia LaBeouf, James Woods, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder. Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, from a screenplay by Lisa Addario, Christian Darren, Don Rhymer, Joe Syracuse.

85 minutes. Rated PG for mild language and some rude humor.

Oh, joy. More penguins.

Seems like only yesterday I was grousing about penguin overkill with the release of "Happy Feet."

Now we have surfer penguins in "Surf's Up," aquatic birds riding big waves for the greater glory of winning the Penguin World Surfing Championship.

But don't let your feathers get all ruffled: "Surf's Up" is actually a pretty funny and sophisticated comedy. It's relentlessly playful and imaginative in the vein of "Toy Story," while keenly observant about comic nuances of behavior and bubbling over with neurotic dialogue. (There are times when conversations in "Surf's Up" are reminiscent of the grasping, desperate, very funny way people communicated in the 1990s animated television series "Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.")

In fact, the penguins in "Surf's Up" don't really need to be penguins at all to make this movie work. The story's young hero, Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), just happens to be a pint-size, strong-willed dreamer who would look more at home leaning into the freezing winds of Antarctica than waxing his board in a balmier clime.

But long before that simple irony wears out its welcome, Cody establishes himself as a solid and winning character driven by a grand if faintly ludicrous sense of destiny. The way he remembers it, the reigning surf king of his childhood, Big Z (Jeff Bridges), thrust a keepsake medal at him following the latter's triumphant run during a tournament, after which he disappeared for good.

Cody takes that as an omen of his own ascendance as a great surfer. But in its ingenious, omniscient, documentary-style format, "Surf's Up" suggests that what actually happened was a little less portentous than the way Cody recalls it. Yet that difference only makes Cody all the more endearing: "Surf's Up" is about passion, about ignoring the odds and knowing when to let the heart govern the head, and vice versa.

Those odds improve — or maybe not — with the reemergence of Big Z, now a somewhat seedier fellow acting as a mentor to Cody, who is clueless about how to surf. Bridges' laid-back, cryptic reading of Big Z's take-me-or-leave-me, homespun wisdom makes a wonderful counterpoint to LaBeouf's nervous assertions of independence.

Jon Heder's role as a suspiciously mellow chicken, Zooey Deschanel's appealing turn as Cody's love interest and James Woods' clever read as a self-aggrandizing journalist make "Surf's Up" as much fun for adults as kids.

But it's Bridges and LaBeouf who make a great vocal team, especially when their characters' mutual frustration results in the actors intentionally stepping on one another's lines, trying to communicate something unspoken but failing to do so. The tones of self-consciousness and anxiety that permeate this movie are a delight, particularly coming out of the mouths of penguins.

Tom Keogh: tomwkeogh@yahoo.com.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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