But "Surf's Up" is so different from its predecessors, and so different from the slew of animated films that have come out in the past couple of years, it's hard not to be charmed.
The movie has a totally inspired vibe: It plays like a Christopher Guest-style mockumentary, complete with deadpan humor, improvised dialogue and hand-held "camera work" -- or rather, its CGI equivalent.
In going behind the scenes at the Big Z Memorial Surf Off on Pen Gu Island, directors and co-writers Chris Buck ("Tarzan") and Ash Brannon ("Toy Story 2") allow us to see a boom mic dipping into the frame, or a shot that's out of focus. We hear off-camera interviewers (Buck and Brannon themselves) ask questions of their subjects and suffer technical issues, and the sensation that we're watching something truly spontaneous provides a giddy thrill.
Shia LaBeouf, however, deviates from the cutesy-hyper delivery you'd expect from the genre as the confident, laid-back voice of Cody Maverick, a young surfer from Antarctica hoping to win the competition. He has great chemistry with Jeff Bridges as Ezekiel "Big Z" Topanga, the reclusive retired legend who becomes his reluctant mentor. Both actors have remarked that they formed an off-screen bond similar to the one their characters share in the film, and it shows.
It helps a great deal that they actually recorded their sessions at the same place and the same time, which is a rarity in animation. Usually an actor goes into a booth, says his or her lines alone, and then all the performances are edited together; because LaBeouf, Bridges and other cast members were able to look at each other, react to each other, talk over each other, their interplay feels more realistic.
Zooey Deschanel is likably easygoing, as always, as the sarcastic lifeguard who becomes the object of Cody's chaste affections; James Woods is dead-on as the opportunistic surf promoter (with Mario Cantone as his ingratiating assistant); and Jon Heder gets a couple of laughs as Cody's new buddy, Chicken Joe, the only surfer in Sheboygan, Wis.
Other lifelike touches include the great attention to detail in the sunshine and waves, the way the wind blows through the trees or penguin flippers leave prints in the sand. By now those are a given, considering the ever-improving technology that's available. Even more clever, though, is the authentic-looking archive footage of old-school surfers, all faded and grainy, as if it really had been shot in 1964. There's also a great effect in which the supposed camera emerges from underneath a wave with drops of water on the lens. Very cool.
OK, so perhaps some themes in the script (also co-written by Don Rhymer and Christopher Jenkins) are a bit too familiar. Cody is an unknown underdog who, against all odds, finds himself at the front of the competition alongside an arrogant reigning champion (Diedrich Bader). Big Z breaks him of his stubbornness and fierce independence and, in the process, becomes the father figure Cody never realized he needed. And Heder is essentially doing yet another version of his clueless, monotone Napoleon Dynamite character. (We probably could have done without him entirely.)
The fact that LaBeouf can read a line like, "Winners find a way no matter what" -- and not sound corny -- is emblematic of what makes "Surf's Up" such an enjoyable ride.
Starring: Voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, James Woods, Jon Heder
Directors: Chris Buck and Ash Brannon
Rated: PG for mild language and some rude humor
Opens today: Bay Area theaters
Running time: 1 hour, 26 minutes