Surf’s Up arrives on the heels of a penguin movie renaissance. After March of the Penguins and Happy Feet, many of us are getting a little tired of all these little people in tuxedos. Fortunately, the animated film has just enough originality to set itself apart from its penguin predecessors, although not quite enough to make it anything special. The story of penguin surfer Cody Maverick (voiced by Transformers star Shia LaBeouf) is told as an animated documentary. Using shaky hand-held cameras, a film crew follows Cody from outcast surfer (and son) in Antarctica, to a big penguin surfing contest on the tropical island of Pen-Gu. On Pen-Gu, Cody meets up the “The Geek” (Jeff Bridges) a former champion surfer who lives as a hermit and bears more than a passing resemblance to Bridges’ The Dude character from The Big Lebowski. Rather than the usual plot line of having “The Geek” teach Cody better techniques to win the contest,” The Geek” teaches Cody to have fun! Maybe that’s not so original either, but the movie makes the most of it with some fun dialogue.
Realizing that today’s animated films need to appeal to both adults and kids, directors Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (Tarzan) throw out enough jokes and comments to keep both amused. When Cody is asked by his off-camera interviewers if he does anything besides surf, he acknowledges adult’s comparisons of Surf’s Up to Happy Feet by answering “what, like sing and dance?...No bro, I just surf.” Cody’s buddy Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) is never referred to this way, but he’s basically a stoner surfer. Something young kids won’t get, but adults will see immediately. Unfortunately, a lot of the kid’s humor runs to the potty variety, like a big eyed kid penguin saying that Cody’s rival Tank Johnson (Diedrich Bader) is a “smelly trash can full of poop.” Hardee har har.
In addition to the unique documentary style, the movie is also set apart by having the actors record their voices together, rather than alone as is usual for animated films, and using ad-libbed dialogue. This reinforces the documentary feel and gives the sometimes “been-there, done-that” scenes a new twist. There is also a plethora of eye-popping visuals. This is the movie for CGI nerds to watch over and over. The water scenes are masterful and walk a nice balance between realism and the cartoonishness that we go to animated movies to see. A scene of Cody and his love interest, Lani (Zooey Deschanel), sledding through the inside of a volcanic mountain is a little too showy, but everything else is beautiful.
The basic plot of Surf’s Up is a bit simplistic and all the stock characters are present, but the movie bounces everything along at a brisk pace. Not including the credits, the whole thing is wrapped up in 77 minutes. This allows the flashes of originality, voice work, and visuals to carry the day. A nice quick diversion that will probably appeal to kids slightly more than adults. Now if we can just get Hollywood to move onto eagles or buffalo for the next few years. The producers of the Surf’s Up disc deserve kudos in breaking with a recent annoying DVD trend. Rather than releasing a bare bones single disc and holding back all the good stuff for a later 2-disc Special Edition, Surf’s Up is one jam packed disc. There is a bit of filler, but the amount of extras is note-worthy in this gouge-the-consumer age.
Directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck join producer Chris Jenkins in an excellent commentary. The trio spends a little too much time amusing themselves with intentionally silly comments, but they settle down enough to give good information on the making of the movie. They are genuinely good-natured guys and that makes for a more enjoyable listening experience.
The trio returns to introduce a few deleted scenes. As with most animated movies, the deleted scenes are not finished but are shown as storyboards with the voice work. They primarily enhance the backstory of legendary penguin surfer “Z” and introduce the characters of his two ex-girlfriends. They come across as things better left out of the movie, but there is a 60’s beach song called “Z is for Zurfing” that is pretty amusing.
The disc includes five featurettes and all but one are extremely interesting. “All Together Now” covers the voice work for the movie and points out that unlike many other animated films, much of the dialogue was recorded by actors in the same room at the same time. “Surf Cam” discusses the camera used to give that documentary feel to many shots. “Making Waves” is a more traditional behind-the-scenes extra, but focuses exclusively on the surfing elements. “Storyboard to Surfboard” shows the final surfing scene in eight different stages from storyboard to final movie. The one clunker featurette involves two live penguins at a well known water theme park interacting with a few of the actors and creators. It’s beyond stupid, but the other four are well done. There is also a separate set of progression reels where a technical animator shows several scenes from early animation to the layers that go into the finished product.
A substantive extra that has nothing to do with the movie is the addition of two animated shorts starring The ChubbChubbs. These are fuzzy Furbyish alien creatures that have a killer bite. The 2002 short “The ChubbChubbs!” won an Oscar for best animated short. The 2007 follow-up “The ChubbChubbs Save Xmas,” is also kind of amusing. Both have nice references to the sci-fi/fantasy films of the past 30 years.
The throw-away extras include a pencil sketching gallery of the main characters. I guess this would be of interest to budding animators. There are also some games that either don’t work very well or are so simplistic as to be on no interest to anyone over six. A music video for the Lauryn Hill song “Lose Myself” is included, although the video is just clips of the movie. There is also one of the kid actors from the movie giving an intro to surfing terms that might interest anyone who hasn’t heard the word “dude” before.
The significant amount of extras on a single disc combined with a good film makes this a disc worth seeing. The audio and visual quality is very good, which is important when much of the film’s appeal is top-notch CGI animation. This isn’t the most original idea, but it is presented in a fairly original way and keeps you entertained without wearing out its welcome.
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