What's black and white and green — in both senses of the word — all over? Penguins, of course! Ash Brannon and Chris Buck's animated mockumentary is cute, good-hearted, occasionally clever, ecofriendly and almost fart-joke-free, but it's also sadly constrained by the fact that mainstream American animation is kiddie fare. You can feel a more ambitious, ambiguous movie about surf culture straining to escape the extended visual gag of penguins hanging ten.
Undersized rock-hopper penguin Cody Maverick (voice of Shia LaBeouf) — he was the small egg, his mother sighs — just doesn't fit into his frosty Antarctic hometown. While his Shiverpool friends and family brood eggs and sort fish, Cody dreams of becoming a surfer like his idol, the late Big Z, who visited Shiverpool at the peak of his fame. When sandpiper Mikey Abromowitz (Mario Cantone), a talent scout for surfing entrepreneur Reggie Belafonte (James Woods), sails into town looking for unknown talent, Cody hitches a ride to the promise of fame. En route to tropical Pen Gu, where Belafonte oversees a lucrative competition, he befriends the infelicitously named Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), a laid-back surfing fowl from Minnesota. Cody is living his dream, especially after Chicken Joe hooks him up with cute lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel). Then he recklessly challenges champion board-bully Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader) and wipes out, stepping on a poisonous sea urchin in the process. Kindly Lani takes him to her reclusive Uncle Geek (Jeff Bridges) for a patch-up, and only the smallest children will be surprised to learn that Uncle Geek is really Big Z, who didn't really die in an awful surfing accident all those years ago. He just slunk away from the crass, uncool commodity his beloved sport/lifestyle/philosophy had become and quietly vanished into posthumous celebrity. And it goes without saying that Cody's enthusiasm eventually draws Big Z back into the wave zone, where he mentors young Cody in the zen of oneness with the waves.
The animation is top-notch, from the water sequences, which are notoriously difficult to render but look fantastic here, to the meticulously scratched and faded "archival footage" of surfing's penguin pioneers. And if you don't care for penguins' anthropomorphized Bambi eyes, or the fact that the penguin chicks look like fuzzy, cuddly Weebles, well, it's Brannon and Buck's movie. The cuteness and ham-flippered triumph-of-the-underdog moralizing dilute what seems to have been conceived as a more melancholic, complex story about the commercialization of the ultimate dropout, nonmaterialist culture, but it's still a cut above the noisy, pop-culture joke-larded norm, and it's much more than a HAPPY FEET knockoff. leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh