The penguin fetish started in 2005 by the unexpected popularity of March of the Penguins comes to a screeching halt with the latest attempt at cashing in on the worn out American love for the wobbly, tuxedo wearing fowls from down south. Surf’s Up is a blizzard of filmmaking foul ups, a perfect storm of blatant pandering and studio screenwriting by committee. It plays like it was written by a third-rate marketing department as a series of happy meal advertisements. It’s barely a movie at all, much less a good one.
Surf’s Up attempts to tell the story of a penguin who wants to be a surfer by using short mockumentary clips cobbled together with surfing action sequences reported on by real life surfers animated as penguins and acting as if they’re covering MTV’s X-Games, complete with loud, annoying, music. The penguin star in question is Cody Maverick, voiced by Shia LaBeouf, whose voice work is much better than his Poochie-like (watch ‘The Simpsons’ will ya?) character deserves. Actually, that’s just about the only thing this movie has going for it. Most of the voice cast is pretty good. Jeff Bridges plays a penguin surfing guru named the Geek and Jon Heder is less talentless than usual as the voice of a surfing chicken named Chicken Joe.
Re-enacting the celebrity obsessed, American Idol fueled dreams of the lowest common denominator of America’s youth, Cody is “discovered” by a surfing promoter and travels by whale to a tropical island where a penguin media frenzy is in progress to cover an annual penguin surfing event. Cody hopes to win, and like, totally be awesome on those waves.
Surf’s Up is a movie made for people who think dogs playing poker is funny. The film’s limp attempts at humor come strictly from the animals in it acting like people. They don’t say funny things, they just say human things, which is supposed to be hilarious because, you know, it’s penguins. This movie is exactly what I and many others were scared to death Happy Feet would be and wasn’t. Happy Feet managed to tell a complicated, and epic story about intelligent penguins who were, at the end of the day, still penguins. Surf’s Up goes in the opposite, and altogether horrible direction, of putting penguins on surf boards for no other reason than, hey, wouldn’t it be funny if penguins could surf? Well no, it isn’t.
What’s most baffling thing here is that for a film so desperate to seem cool and hip, Surf’s Up is completely out of touch with pop culture. MTV character confessionals haven’t been hip and hot since 1996. It doesn’t become fresh just because they’ve got penguins doing it. Surfing stopped being a cutting edge part of youth culture when the Beach Boys turned 30. Penguins stopped being awesome last year, when everyone enjoyed Happy Feet, and then got over it.
This is the worst possible sort of kids movie. The animation is bright and colorful, so maybe very young kids who can’t understand what’s going on will like it, just because of how bright it is. But everyone else is going to be bored out of their mind. Large groups of people started walking out of the free screening I was in after about fifteen minutes, and the kids who did stick around were fidgety and disinterested. Most got up and wandered around the theater to talk to their friends. If Surf’s Up accomplishes anything, it will be to bring families together, in boredom. Take your kids and be bored together.