Since the hugely profitable one-two punch of 2002's Ice Age and 2003's Finding Nemo, the "group of wacky animals voiced by celebrities" CGI kids' movie has become a massive cliché, as much a theater-clogging same-old same-old genre as romantic comedies about sad-sack emo boys who need someone quirky to perk them up. The latest CGI-animal genre outing, Surf's Up, seems to recognize the need for innovation, and its inexperienced four-man writing team (the one industry vet, Don Rhymer, mostly has lamentable credits like the Big Momma's House movies and The Santa Clause 2) found it in a new concept: the CGI mockumentary. Pitched as a documentary about wannabe surf-champ Cody Maverick (a rockhopper penguin voiced by Shia LaBeouf), Surf's Up spends as much time aping and mocking docs as it does telling its wispy wuss-to-winner sports story. The conceit sometimes works and sometimes doesn't, but at least it's a wee bit different.
Step One to enjoying the film: accept that penguins are experienced natural surfers who frequently hang out on tropical islands, competing in animal-kingdom surf-offs so well-established that they have their own mythology. Step Two: try to get emotionally invested in Cody, a little bird with big dreams, a big mouth, and negligible board skills. Along his attempted route to penguin fame and fortune, he challenges the reigning champ, meets a stoner chicken (Jon Heder), sets his beady eyes on a sexy penguinette (Zooey Deschanel), and tries to emulate his hero "Big Z" (Jeff Bridges), but in the way of animated characters everywhere, he needs to learn some life lessons (and pass them along to his audience) before he's ready to go for the gold.
Tarzan co-director Chris Buck and Toy Story 2 co-director Ash Brannon lay out his story amid every possible documentary touchstone, from traditional methods (historical montages, talking-head interviews, questions from an off-camera filmmaker, interview segments inserted to inform action sequences) to notable flaws (out-of-focus footage, sudden pans to barely caught action, gunk on the camera lens, characters interacting with the offscreen film crew, etc.). The kids the film is aimed at won't get most of these gags, but parents should be slightly diverted during all the otherwise standard-issue animal cutups and the mildly touching story. Surf's Up is notable for its depth of field—the animation is standard CGI, but the way its characters occasionally move three-dimensionally is admirable. But mostly, it just stands out in a crowded field of tacky also-rans by being a reasonably acceptable, more or less non-obnoxious way to spend an hour and a half.