- Reviewed by: Mel Valentin
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Current Rating 9.75/10 | 4 Votes
The teenaged Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) lives in Shiverpool, Antarctica with his unappreciative mother Edna (Dana Belben) and his bullying older brother, Glen (Brian Posehn). He’s also a talking Rock-Hopper penguin, as are all the other inhabitants of Shiverpool. Years earlier, legendary surfer Big Z (Jeff Bridges), visiting Shiverpool and shared his laid-back life philosophy with an impressionable Cody (i.e., winners never quit, winners always find a way). Almost two decades later, Cody can’t think of anything else except becoming a competitive surfer. Cody gets the opportunity he’s been looking for when Mikey Abromowitz (Mario Cantone), a global recruiter for Pen Gu Island’s upcoming Big Z Memorial Surf Off, the unofficial World Surfing Championships run by Reggie Belafonte (James Woods), an unscrupulous, fast-talking promoter/sea otter who models his hair after Don King.
On Pen Gu Island, Cody meets another competitor, the perpetually stoned Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), a lifeguard Lani Aliikai (Zooey Deschanel), and nine-time surfing champion Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), as egocentric and arrogant as he's good riding Pen Gu Island’s big waves. Almost immediately, Cody takes issue with Tank's mistreatment of the other surfers and challenges Tank to an impromptu competition. Whoever wipes out, loses. Cody wipes out and almost drowns. Luckily, Lani saves him. With nowhere to leave Cody, Lani takes him to her uncle Geek's (Jeff Bridges) out-of-the way shack. Disappointed with his performance, Cody's ready to give up, but Geek, an old-school surfer, encourages Cody to re-learn how to surf, emphasizing a Zen-like appreciation of big waves, developing a close connection with his surfing board (by building his own), and eventually learning how to have fun while surfing.
Surf’s Up mixes its message about perseverance, friendship, and the transcendent joys of surfing with you-are-there, behind-the-scenes documentary-style storytelling, complete with uncomfortable family interviews, gawking crowds, awkward moments, jiggling, handheld camerawork on land, and inside-the-wave camerawork for the surfing scenes. As a family film, Surf’s Up has its share of adult-oriented humor (e.g., Chicken Joe’s stoner comments, Geek’s cod-philosophizing, and Tank’s fetishistic relationship with his trophies) along with a fair share of toilet humor from a chorus of young penguins who comment on the proceedings, all of which unfolds within the framework of the upcoming surfing competition, perfect for adding a sense of urgency to Cody’s quest to become a competitive surfer.
What distinguishes Surf’s Up from the recent glut of family-oriented animated films, though, is the quality of the computer animation. Under the guidance of co-directors Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (Tarzan), the animators at Sony Pictures Animation have created some of the most dazzling animation this side of Pixar Animation Studios. Whether it’s Cody’s frigid home in Antarctica or the sunny beaches of Pen Gu Island, the animation is never less than impressive. Impressive becomes breathtaking, however, when Brannon, Buck, and their animators turn their attention to the surfing scenes. The near photorealistic water effects (e.g., texture, lighting, volume) are all the more impressive when combined with the various shots above and inside particular big waves as they develop and speed toward shore carrying the occasionally expert penguin or chicken.
Surf’s Up also benefits from pitch-perfect voice casting, beginning with Shia LaBeouf (who sounds like a young Bruce Willis) and an almost unrecognizable Jeff Bridges. Rather than record the actors separately, Brannon and Buck decided to record them together. Having the actors work together resulted in a camaraderie and energy usually missing from animated films. Combined with a solid, if predictable storyline, ample amounts of surf-based humor, a positive message, and top-notch animation, and the end result is a perfect Saturday matinee for families and fans of computer animation.
© Mel Valentin, 8th June, 2007
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