Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Sony animated film “Surf’s Up” leaves one important question unanswered. Despite that, it is an enjoyable movie which could easily have been derivative, but managed to avoid that by introducing some welcome innovations which support the films moral in a manner which is all too often missing from this sort of film.
The film, which is shot in a documentary style, follows Cody Maverick (Shia LeBeouf), a rockhopper penguin from Antarctica, as he reaches for his dream of becoming a totally awesome surfer. While none of the other penguins in Antarctica can get excited for Cody’s dream, his ticket out of the fish-sorting plant comes when Mikey Abromowitz (Mario Cantone) scouts Antarctica. Not initially impressed with Cody, the young penguin manages to convince Mikey and soon is en route to Pen Gu Island, a tropical surf capital, with his new friend, a chicken from Sheboygan, Wisconsin named Chicken Joe (Jon Hader).
Once at Pen Gu Island, Cody finds himself challenged to a surfing contest by Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), who unseated Cody’s hero, the Big Z, ten years earlier in a competition which claimed the Big Z’s life. In this contest, there is no sign of the surfing expertise Cody demonstrated in Antarctica, and which, in fact, is lacking for much of the remainder of the movie as Cody learns what surfing is all about and what it means to be a winner.
The supporting characters are strong and enjoyable, from lifeguard babe Lani Aliikai (Zooey Deschanel) to surf dropout the Geek (Jeff Bridges) to the Greek choir of baby penguins (Reed Buck, Jack P. Ranjo, and Reese Elowe). The Geek winds up reluctantly taking Cody under his wing to help him understand that surfing isn’t about winning, but rather about having fun, a dictum which can apply to almost any activity.
The filmmakers use two techniques which really separate the film from other similar projects. First is the multi-cast recording sessions. Most animated is done with individual actors coming in to a study and reading their lines. This requires the actors to stick more closely to the script and lessens the chance for real chemistry to form between the characters. In “Surf’s Up,” all the actors for a scene would be brought in to record together, allowing for a level of improvisation which is usually lacking in animation.
The other technique was the use of a camera which could draw from a 360º virtual environment. The technology developed allowed the film to have more of a hand-held documentary feel to it, although there are parts of the movie in which the documentary framework seems to be lacking.
The big question that remains unanswered in the film, however, is why an entire penguin society has formed on a tropical island. Last time I checked, penguins were Antarctic and subantarctic creatures living in the colder regions of the southern hemisphere. Nevertheless, Surf’s up is an enjoyable film.
The DVD also comes loaded with extras, some of them rather basic, others quite interesting. Most notable among the DVD extras are the documentaries focusing on the recording sessions, the camera techniques, and other behind the scenes looks at filmmaking. A series of “lost scenes” which didn’t make the final cut are interesting, but it is easy to see why they weren’t included. The Meet the Penguins feature includes some cute footage of penguins, but actually discussing penguins in general would have made it more interesting.
Arnold’s “Zurfinary” and the three games on the disc are targeted more toward younger kids, with the Whale Hopping Game a version of “Frogger,” and Make Your Own surfboard something which is not likely to keep any child occupied for very long. Unrelated short features “The Chubbchubbs” and “The Chubbchubbs Save Xmas” are enjoyable, although the former is predictable. The latter is similar to many other Christmas shorts and films and relies on references to other films for much of its humor.
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