Directors: Ash Brannon and Chris Buck
Cast: The voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder, James Woods, Diedrich Bader, Mario Cantone
MPAA Rating: (for mild language and some rude humor)
Running Time: 1:25
Release Date: 6/8/07
Review by Mark Dujsik
Surf's Up tries to distance itself from that other computer-animated penguin movie right off the bat. The unseen documentary film crew asks our young penguin hero if he has any other talents. "Like singing and dancing," he asks. No, he's not into that kind of stuff. What our hero here loves is surfing. Yes, the next step in saturating the culture with those adorable flightless birds is to show them surfing, despite the fact most species aren't not exactly suited to the climate necessary for the sport. In spite of the biological drawback, Surf's Up imagines a world where penguins are obsessed with surfing, have a cable sports channel (Sports Penguin Entertainment Network, or SPEN), hold an annual surf off, and have no problem opening up for the camera. The introduction to this world and the characters that inhabit it contain the best moments of Surf's Up. There's a lot of potential in the early scenes, but it's lost once everyone arrives for the competition. The amusing faux documentary style is confined to a formulaic sports story, and the energy and imagination that came with it are gone.
Cody Maverick (voice of Shia LaBeouf) has always loved surfing. The greatest moment of his life came when the legendary penguin surfer Big Z visited Cody's home community of Shiverpool, Antarctica (the town is where the fish are stacked) and gave the young penguin a "one-of-a-kind" medallion (Z grabs it from a line of others). The self-deception is one of many when it comes to Cody and his surfing career. He tells the crew he's the best, only to have his boasting intercut with his multiple falls and crashes off the shore of town. The penguin community in Shiverpool isn't thrilled with Cody's choice of career, especially his bigger brother Glen (voice of Brian Posehn), who thinks his little bro is shirking his duties. Meanwhile, Pen Gu Island is preparing for the ninth annual Big Z Memorial Surf Off, which promoter Reggie Belafonte (voice of James Woods), a beaver with a Don King haircut, never gets tired of playing up. His shorebird talent scout Mikey (voice of Mario Cantone) arrives in Shiverpool, where Cody forces himself onto the tour whale to participate in the competition, where Tank Evans (voice of Diedrich Bader) is hoping for his tenth consecutive win.
The material in Shiverpool works well, and there's plenty of humor to be had watching Cody's family dynamic and his failed attempts to be the best. There's a great semi-macabre gag involving the final photo of Cody's father, and the subtle way Cody shifts around the telling of his moment with Big Z foreshadows some other delusions grandeur he gets into later. Even upon his arrival at Pen Gu Island, the movie makes good use of the fake reality gimmick. We meet Chicken Joe (voice of Jon Heder), a chicken (natch) from Sheboygan, Wisconsin, who may or may not be high. He didn't know his father too well either (there's a nice call-back to the earlier joke here) and spends most of the movie searching for Cody with the help of the Pen Gu-ins, who try to keep him in a "hot tub." There's also Tank, who doesn't see himself as a role model but thinks he's "someone kids should look up to." The kids aren't too happy with him, what with the way he demolishes their surfboards and knocks them down while he practices. "He's a dirty trashcan full of poop," one of the tykes says. He's also a fan of his trophies, or, as he calls them, his "ladies."
Pretty soon, though, the movie takes a familiar, less clever turn. Cody meets Lani (voice of Zooey Deschanel), a penguin lifeguard, and falls for her. After a terrible start to the competition (he tells the film crew before surfing that they're going to want to watch his first wave over and over, and they do), Cody ends up with Lani's friend, the recluse Geek (voice of Jeff Bridges), and Geek knows a lot about surfing (the reason is pretty obvious). From here on out (after an interview with the fire urchin Cody stepped on to end up at Geek's), the movie becomes far more obvious, with Geek teaching Cody the ropes of surfing and imparting wisdom like the importance of having fun (basically, he becomes Pat Morita to Cody's Ralph Macchio). The interviews become less common, and when they do appear, they feel more like unnecessary interludes to the plot. Cody and Lani race through a lava cavern under the island, and the big competition feels like any other. The lack of involvement later does give one time to appreciate the animation, though, and there are some striking shots of surfing action on big waves that look fairly authentic.
The second half of the movie is missing the energy of the first half, and it's enough to weigh down the whole thing. The ad people behind Surf's Up at least had the courage to do something in its marketing campaign that the other computer-animated penguin movie didn't: label the movie as a "true story." There's no significance like the other movie may have had if it had been called such, but it's amusing in its own right.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.