2007Director: Ash Brannon, Chris Buck
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Shia LaBeouf, Zooey Deschanel
o dispense with the necessary comparison: this is the second best CGI penguin feature of recent months, and I'm not counting Madagascar. Surf's Up doesn't attempt to match the pop density or intercontinental scope of Happy Feet; it's a smaller movie, well-shaped. A more useful comparison would be to Every Kid Sports Movie Ever, in which a big-hearted but hot-headed teen boy is taken under the wing of a guru, and learns the true spirit of polo or tiddlywinks or whatever. In the best of them, the kid may or may not win the big competition, but he gets what really matters: popularity and a hot girl.
The twist in Surf's Up is that it’s a mockumentary. A film crew follows up-and-comer Cody (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) as he prepares for his first major surf event, held on a tropical island. The faux-archival footage—decaying film and old home video—is canny, but like many mockumentaries, the writers rely on the conceit instead of on, you know, actual jokes. Thankfully, the concept isn't applied entirely rigorously, which means the relationships between Cody, lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel), and recluse Geek (Jeff Bridges) get room to unfold on camera, though the not-so-shocking plot twist has been spoiled by almost every review.
If I'm sick of mockumentaries, I'm far from sick of penguin movies, because penguins will always be cute. With their two-legs-better walk and their impossible living arrangements, these almost-humanoids are among the easiest of animals to anthropomorphize. The baby penguins here are particularly winsome, despite the darnedest things they're made to say, which usually include the word “poop.” There is, however, a fundamental problem to overcome: the beak. The penguins' faces have limited flexibility, and each character only has slight variations on its basic expression. Unlike that of Happy Feet, the body language in Surf's Up isn't sufficiently evocative to compensate.
What does compensate is the quality of the voice acting. The characters play off each other instead of simply radiating their lines, with the merry exception of the Don King-haired promoter-otter (James Woods), who never stops selling. Also memorable is genial Chicken Joe (Jon Heder, flourishing in an admittedly easy role), whose perpetually stoned state slipped past the censors. Deschanel has a few action-packed early scenes, but her character is soon reduced to being disturbingly curvaceous and, also, the voice of reason, which isn't as much fun as saving lives. One can't help but regret that recent movies missed their chance to let the female penguins do all the cool stuff while the guys sat on their eggs.
Both Cody's expression and personality are unfortunately burdened with “attitude,” and those of us who never had that affliction might find it hard to sympathize with the bugger. If the villain (Diedrich Bader) is the guy who beat you up in high school, Cody is the smart-ass you wanted to beat up. But Bridges, one major reason for grown-ups to see the movie, manages to bail out LaBeouf most of the time. He's in full Dude mode: you can imagine him recording his lines while slouched on the couch in a cardigan, acting laid-back until the cocky kid awakens his cunning. At all times, he abides.
The other reason to see this is the semi-acknowledged reason computer animation is a cash magnet: the color. Toons are the last refuge for filmgoers sick of Fincher grey-brown. Surf's Up does better than most in this respect, ditching the icy environs of cleverly-named Shiverpool for the somewhat SoCal, lazily-named, Pen Gu Island as early as possible. The obligatory sliding penguin scene takes place inside a volcano. And the waves are especially lovely: one could watch them forever, whether a penguin is in the tube or not. Surf's Up could be the best screensaver ever. There are worse fates.
Surf´s Up is currently in wide release.
By: Brad Luen
Published on: 2007-06-13