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Bold birds ride waves to a new territory

We've seen martial penguins (Madagascar), parent penguins (March of the . . .) and musical penguins (Happy Feet). Surfing penguins were inevitable, as they bring together a beloved cult sport with a beloved cult bird.

We've seen martial penguins (


), parent penguins (

March of the . . .

) and musical penguins (

Happy Feet

). Surfing penguins were inevitable, as they bring together a beloved cult sport with a beloved cult bird.

Surf's Up! rides the curl of the penguin wave. The mock-documentary is shot in a reality-TV style with a playful spirit and winning-isn't-everything, dude, attitude. (The film's wry humor owes a lot to Stacy Peralta's recent doc Riding Giants.)

This genial, family-friendly film is the nobody-to-somebody saga of a Rockhopper - that would be a crested species of penguin - named Cody Maverick (voice of Shia LaBeouf) who toils at a fishery in Shiverpool, Antarctica, while dreaming of the Penguin World Surfing Championship in Hawaii.

As we see in archival "footage," Cody's Dad is out of the picture and his big brother thinks surfing is silly. What self-respecting Rockhopper uses an ice floe as a makeshift surfboard?

Yet Cody gets encouragement from a visiting legendary surfer named Big Z (voice of Jeff Bridges); gets scouted by a surf promoter, an otter named Reggie Belafonte (voice of James Woods); and cruises to Hawaii on the back of a whale.

Though it's neither as coral-reef gorgeous or deeply funny as Finding Nemo, Surf's Up! has a jokey-serious tone that engages both children and adults.

It's rare in an animated film to hear voicework this lively. (Reportedly, directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck recorded the actors playing off each other rather than isolated in control booths.)

Not only are LaBeouf and Bridges terrific, but Jon Heder is hilarious as surfing fowl Chicken Joe. And Zooey Deschanel is saucy fun as penguin lifeguard Lani.

Cora and Danielle, my 11-year-old chaperones, were very enthusiastic about Surf's Up! They liked the penguins, they liked the wave action, they liked the life lessons, they liked the love story. Me, I laughed myself silly at the sight of a penguin hanging six, etching the glass of a giant breaker. With all the breakthroughs in computer-generated imagery, I am still astounded that the algoriths for water, for foliage and for animal hair are so photorealistic.

Surf's Up *** (out of four stars)

Produced by Chris Jenkins, directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, written by Lisa Addario, Christian Darren, Don Rhymer and Joe Syracuse, photography by Andres Martinez, music by Mychael Danna, distributed by Sony Pictures.

Running time: 1 hour, 25 mins.

Cody Maverick. . . Voice of Shia LaBeouf

Big Z. . . Voice of Jeff Bridges

Chicken Joe. . . Voice of Jon Heder

Reggie Belafonte. . . Voice of James Woods

Tank Evans. . . Voice of Diedrich Bader

Parent's guide: PG (profanity, rude behavior)

Playing at: area theatersEndText