They’ve marched, they’ve danced, and they’ve even been farced. In Surf’s Up, they now surf. I guess the only genre that hasn’t been covered by penguins is the stoner comedy. I’ll be looking forward to that. Anyways, as some may recall, I quipped in my review of Meet the Robinsons as follows: “Hey, at least it doesn’t have penguins.” Frankly, penguins are grossly overexposed, even though the general public seems endlessly fascinated by them. Yes, they’re cute and they walk funny, but we’re now on year three of penguin cinematic adventures.
This makes it all the more amazing that directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, along with a host of writers, have created a penguin film that feels fresh and original, even if it doesn’t always succeed. Running a scant eighty-five minutes (make that seventy-five minutes of film and ten minutes of credits), the movie is fast-paced and loaded with quirky wit.
“Shot” entirely in reality TV-style, we meet Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) as the film opens. He has big dreams of professional surfing and escaping his Antarctic home, where he lives with parents who misunderstand him and a much bigger brother who constantly harasses him. His idol is Big Z (voiced by Jeff Bridges), a surfing legend who’s presumed dead in a tragic accident. One day Cody is recruited to participate in Penguin World Surfing Championship in Pen Gu, where he discovers that Big Z is actually alive and hiding out. Big Z takes him under his wing, and the two train to take down arch-nemesis Tank Evans (voiced by Diedrich Bader) and win the whole shebang.
As strange as it seems, there may be more material for adults than kids here. Young adults will identify with the idolizing and mentoring of a figure we have all seen as bigger than life. Grown adults will identify with Big Z, who feels washed up and useless in the wake of younger, newer talent. Kids will laugh at the fart, belch, and feces jokes, as if there isn’t enough of that in today’s cinema.
The animation, by Sony Pictures, is absolutely superb. The lush island locales burst off the screen and the waves are truly awe-inspiring. The purposefully shaky camera techniques seem distracting at first, but the film settles into a groove quickly. The in-your-face attitude really suits this material nicely.
The voice casting is inspired, particularly Jeff Bridges as the aging Big Z. He brings a nice vocal depth to the character and really helps the more emotional scenes pay off. The Hollywood flavor of 2007, Shia LaBeouf, exhibits nice energy as Cody, capturing the sort of wonder we all experienced when we were seventeen. The supporting work by Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder, James Woods, and Diedrich Bader is also good for several laughs.
Surf’s Up delivers the early summer escapist fun that kids and parents are looking for, and that’s all that can really be asked of it. The film puts a different spin on a seemingly ragged formula, which is always welcome. The sad truth is that it will probably disappear once Pixar’s Ratatouille gets released later this month, but Surf’s Up is nevertheless harmless fun for just about everyone.
Studio: Sony Pictures
Length: 85 Minutes
Rating: PG for mild language and some rude humor.
Theatrical Release: June 8, 2007
Directed by: Ash Brannon & Chris Buck.
Written by: Lisa Addario & Christian Darren & Don Rhymer & Joe Syracuse.
Cast: Shia LaBeouf (voice), Jeff Bridges (voice), Zooey Deschanel (voice), Jon Heder (voice), James Woods (voice), Diedrich Bader (voice)