Movie Review: Surf's Up
By Shane Jenkins
June 18, 2007

You'd think a surfing hero could get a hotter chick.

The number of animated movies rolling their way into multiplexes has increased exponentially in the past couple of years. What used to be an "event" now seems to occur every other week. The vast majority of these tend to be "talking animal" movies, like Madagascar, Over the Hedge, The Wild, Shark Tale, etc. They usually center around a set of characters who have the same problems and anxieties as the rest of us - they just happen to have fur or gills. These cartoons are bright and colorful, piled high with pop cultural references, and are almost all interchangeable. I can't remember which sassy talking hippo or neurotic lion belongs to which movie anymore. They're all kind of a vague famously-voiced blur in my head. So, I'm happy to report that the latest (at least for the next two weeks) talking animal cartoon, Surf's Up, is actually something different, despite being yet another penguin movie.

Unlike the noxious Happy Feet (the worst Academy Award winner since Renee Zellweger in Cold Mountain, by the way), which tried to squeeze out every last itty-bitty drop of cuteness from its penguins, Surf's Up plays it (wait for it...) cool. It has some adorable penguins, sure, but you won't need an insulin shot after seeing it. In fact, for the most part, Surf's Up downplays the penguin jokes, and really could have centered around almost any animal, so if you're burnt out on penguins, you can be assured that there's not really a whole lot of penguinity at the center.

What really sets Surf's Up apart from the rest of its anthropomorphic kin is its style. It purports to be a documentary following young Cody Maverick as he leaves behind the life of an Antarctic fish stacker/sorter, and follows his dreams to surf competitively in the beach paradise of Pen Gu Island. The more surf documentaries you've seen, the more you will enjoy the look and feel of Surf's Up, with its scratchy "archival" footage, boom mics entering the frame, and various passerby staring and waving at the camera and "crew." The animators at Sony have taken the idea of those "outtakes" at the end of some Pixar movies, and run with it. You would think it could get old quickly, but surprisingly, the conceit remains funny for the length of the film.

The conventional way of recording voice-overs for these animated movies is to have each actor record the dialog alone in a booth, and paste it all together later. Often, these "co-stars" don't even meet each other until the press junket right before the release. Surf's Up bucked this trend by recording several of the actors together, allowing them to play off each other in real time. This pays off tremendously, as the exchanges between the characters feels really naturalistic, which is a necessity for the requirements of a mockumentary.

Cody is voiced by Shia LaBeouf, who's having quite a summer, and his voice-over work is great here. He brings exactly the right tone of enthusiasm and awe to Cody, which is a welcome change from the lifeless voice acting in Shrek the Third. Jeff Bridges voices Geek, a beach bum penguin with a secret, and if you're a fan of The Big Lebowski, you're going to have some extra fun here. Geek is basically The Dude with flippers, another joke that manages to stay consistently amusing throughout. Cody's love interest, a lifeguard named Lani, is played by Zooey Deschanel, who is adorable even when you can only hear her. And Jon Heder is Chicken Joe, a Spicoli-esque surfin' bird, anachronistic even in the context of this wave-riding penguin movie. His is the character the kids will love the most, even if they don't get the many stoner jokes until they're older.

In fact, most of Surf's Up feels like it was made to entertain parents first. Kids don't know anything about Endless Summer or Fast Times at Ridgemont High. They probably won't get the Survivor pee-on-the-foot joke. They won't particularly appreciate the gorgeously rendered waves. But you will, and this makes Surf's Up a rare non-Pixar animated movie that doesn't talk down to kids, and will allow them to appreciate it on a different level when they're older. The Lion King might be the ultimate example of a movie that plays for kids, but has themes that will resonate much more when they've aged a little. Surf's Up is certainly no Lion King; it's too goofy and slight. But its central message - that no one is infallible and everyone can use a little help sometimes - is a pretty solid one. It's actually a feel-good movie, the first of the season, and is the best time I've had at the movies so far this summer.