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New Animated Film 'Surf's Up' Tackles World of Big Wave Surfing

A new animated family film dips into the high thrills world of 'big wave' surfing; but these athletes are not the usual tanned, muscular icons of the beach. They are penguins. Surfing penguins. Alan Silverman has a look at Surf's Up.

Cody Maverick, a young rockhopper penguin, was never at home on the Antarctic ice. Where he really wanted to be was out catching the waves on his home-carved surfboard (carved from ice, of course).

He learns, however, that making a dream come true is hard work, even if it involves doing something you love:

When Cody gets the chance to compete in the big surfing competition on tropical Pen-Gu Island (which looks suspiciously like the North Shore of Hawaii's Oahu island), he makes new friends, including a surfing chicken named Joe, voiced by Jon Heder.

And he loses his heart to a beautiful penguin lifeguard named Lani, played by Zoey Deschanel.

"They're more human than animal-like, these penguins; you have this personal connection with them. They're very human," says Shia LaBeouf, who does the voice of Cody and says the wave-riding sport is ideal for the Surf's Up coming-of-age theme.

"There is something magical about surfing and the fact that it's bands of energy moving through water," says LaBeouf.

"What other sport do you ride bands of energy? When you break it down into what it is, it's a magical thing and it is not just a sport, it's a lifestyle. It really changes you. It mellows you out. People come out of yoga and they are in a whole different place. You watch people come off the beach and their mentality is changed.

Jeff Bridges, who grew up surfing on southern California's Malibu coast, brings his knowledge of that world to the character he voices: a laid-back old penguin dude who - reluctantly at first - becomes mentor to brash young Cody.

"What the journey for my character was all about was a guy who has something in his youth that he loves and then he kind of loses it," he says. "He spends the rest of life mourning that and trying to get back to it. That's kind of an ancient story, I think. Then, in the relationship with this young guy who is going through a similar thing, they teach each other and learn about life that way. It's a good tale."

Usually voice acting for animated films involves spending long sessions alone in the recording booth; but the Surf's Up directors brought cast members together for many sessions. Jon Heder and Zoey Deschanel explain they were encouraged to improvise and actually act out the scenes.

"The animators use a lot of your gestures. They videotape you," explains Deschanel.

"Yes, you kind of automatically start acting it a little bit physically ...and there are moments where we actually did, when we were shooting together, like the scene where I'm pushing Shia into your character," adds Heder.

"I literally was pushing him," Heder explains.

"You also have to get the feeling like you are picking somebody up, so they have sandbags for you because it has to sound like it," notes Deschanel. "I spent so much time dragging around a sandbag because I was supposed to be dragging Shia around."

"You do catch yourself doing that a lot ...looking like a fool ...but I was miming it instead of using a sandbag," Heder says. "You think 'this is really weird.' "

" Falling down, I would really fall down," said Deschanel.

Along with the characters, Surf's Up features amazing depictions of what it is like to be on the crest of a wave: impossible camera shots that co-director Chris Buck says the computer animators kept making better and better.

"We said early on that if we can't do the waves I don't think we can do this movie," Buck says. "Even from their early tests, the guys blew us away ...and they kept saying 'this is nothing. We're not happy with that' and they just kept making it better and better."

Surf's Up is co-directed by Chris Buck and Ash Brannon. Real-life surfing champions including Kelly Slater and Rob Machado served as technical advisors.