I know what you’re thinking. Not another penguin movie. Sure March of the Penguins (or should we go back and start with that trio of penguins in Madagascar…oh, it’s so confusing!) was fantastic, heartwarming family entertainment, and, yeah, Happy Feet was ok, but enough’s enough, right? Wrong. The third times the charmer.
Surf's Up is the story of Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), a teenage resident of Shiverpool, Antarctica who has dreams of becoming the greatest surfer in the world, just like his idol, Big Z whom he met briefly as a young child before the legend’s untimely death at the hands of a crushing wave. Trouble is, the only one who believes in Cody is Cody. His family and friends mock his dreams and when a surfing scout comes to Shiverpool with an invitation to compete in a surfing competition in Hawaii, Cody jumps at the chance to leave the backwater town in his wake.
Hawaii may seems like an odd place for penguins, but if the Galapagos is good enough for Darwin’s water-bound birds, Hawaii is good enough for a teenage penguin with a chip on his shoulder and a whole lot to prove. However, things don’t go swimmingly for Cody in the beginning. In fact, they go so badly that he finds himself ready to throw in the towel. The only one who seems capable of turning Cody’s fortunes around is the Zen-like Geek (Jeff Bridges), a down-on-his-luck ex-surfer who may or may not be Cody’s “dead” hero, Big Z, hiding from his own legendary status. Geek can teach Cody a thing or two, but is Cody willing to listen? Theirs is the classic relationship of the hesitant mentor and the impatient apprentice. The kid might just learn something if he’s willing to admit that he doesn’t already know everything.
Surf’s Up is an ESPN-esque mockumentary with penguins where the humans should be. Cameras and intruding boom mikes follow the characters around, allowing for one-on-one interviews. Sure, it’s a cartoon, but the acting is disconcertingly natural for an animated film. This idea carries through into the animation itself — while the animals are drawn with cutsie personification, the natural world around them is rendered with breathtaking naturalism. These two elements collide during the surfing sequences, making for scenes in which the camera follows silly-looking penguins through moves impossible to duplicate in reality, but which come off like beautifully choreography.
While the always-impressive LaBeouf is fantastic here, even buried beneath layers of computer-generated paint, it is Bridges who completely steals the show. Bridges plays Big Z as if he were channeling The Dude in The Big Lebowski, and the result is an infectious and hilarious character who just gets better and better as the film goes on. Other characters include Sheboygan surfer Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), the beautiful lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel), competition promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods), and the bully Tank (Diedrich Bader), the reigning king of surfdom who has won every award there is, a point he loves to remind whomever will listen. Oh yeah, and how could I forget the Ewok penguins…
While nowhere near as clever or as meta-layered as the always-brilliant Pixar offerings, Surf’s Up is one of the better CG cartoon offerings to date. It belongs to that refreshing group of animated films that suffuse enough adult humor to bypass the children’s radar but hit mom and dad right in the funny bone (just between you and me, I think the chicken may be a bit stoned). Finally, parents can go to the movies with their kids without having to feel guilty for shelling out a ticket for themselves. But there is plenty here for the adults to like on their kid’s behalf. Big Z teaches Cody to think of others before himself, convinces him that the journey is more important than the destination and that fun and friendship are more important than winning.
Either the third act resolved itself too quickly and tidily, or I was enjoying myself more than I realized, and wanted to stick around with the little tuxedo-clad surfers longer than the credits allowed. I think the little girl in the seat in front of me would have agreed — she spent the last quarter of the movie acting out her favorite scenes using her seat as the surfboard.
To read this story in its original form, click here.