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Saturday, June 09, 2007

Surf's Up

Given Hollywood's current love affair with penguins, Surf's Up had to do something different in order to stand out. Fortunately, directors Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (Disney's Tarzan) realized this, and made not a conventional animated film that one would expect, but rather a "mockumentary" in the style of filmmaker Christopher Guest (Best in Show, A Mighty Wind). It's a great idea, and it makes the movie a lot more fun than it would be if it had taken a more standard route. That's because behind the film's unique approach, Surf's Up is pretty standard stuff that we've seen one too many times before. The plotting, humor, and characters are old standbys of modern day animated films, but the unique spin on it all makes it watchable for adults who will be taken to this movie by their kids.

Modeled after real life surfing documentary films like The Endless Summer, Surf's Up follows a little penguin named Cody Maverick (voice by Shia LeBeouf from Disturbia) and his dreams of being a great surfer like his idol, the legendary Big Z, who died years ago in a massive wipeout. No one in Cody's penguin community in Shiverpool, Antarctica believes in his dream until the day a little talent scout bird (Mario Cantone) arrives in his town, looking for potential surfers for the upcoming Big Z Memorial Surf Off on Pen Gu Island. Cody makes the cut to go to the competition, and quickly befriends a burned out chicken surfer named Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) and the beautiful penguin lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel). He also runs afoul of the current surfing champ, a muscle-bound bully penguin named Tank (Diedrich Bader). Cody's determination to be somebody drives him to be the best in the competition, and with the help of a mysterious island recluse (Jeff Bridges) who seems to know a lot about surfing and Cody's idol Big Z, he just may get his chance.

Surf's Up has a lot of fun with its documentary approach, and the moments when it steps away from the plot and shows us interviews with both major and minor characters are easily the most inspired moments of the film. The movie does a good job of representing an actual camera crew there in the action, and includes some intentional bloopers such as boom mikes getting into the shot, the off camera voices of the filmmakers sometimes commenting on the action, and the camera getting hit or knocked into, causing the screen to shake momentarily. While other animated films have used this approach for certain scenes, this is the first time I can remember that the "documentary" approach has been used throughout the entirety of a full length cartoon. The filmmakers know how and when to use this approach as well, so that it never interferes with the story being told. That being said, the story easily winds up being the weakest part of the film. The whole "follow your dreams" and "it's not about winning, it's about having fun" themes that the film preaches are old hat to anyone who's ever watched a cartoon in the past five years or so. With it's unique approach, I was hoping the filmmakers might try to have some fun with the plot cliches as well. Unfortunately, the style of the movie seems to exist solely to mask the fact that there's not a single original thought in the entire screenplay.

The jokes are largely hit or miss as well. Though always enjoyable and cute, Surf's Up doesn't deliver on very many laugh out loud moments for anyone above the age of 10. The opening moments in Antarctica, when the filmmakers are talking to Cody and his family and friends easily hold the biggest laughs. Once the plot itself kicks in, things become a lot more conventional. We even get a couple of the seemingly-standard "poo jokes" as well. The fact that Cody and his love interest, Lani, share a moment together in a pile of glo-worm droppings kind of tells you that this movie doesn't exactly aim for the heights with its humor. There's even some potential hidden drug humor with the character of Cody's friend, Chicken Joe, who talks like a burned out surfer stoner, and sometimes has a case of the "munchies" as he looks for his next "rush". Maybe I was reading too much into it, but the fact that the adults in the audience were laughing at the character more than the kids kind of tells me I'm not too far off the mark. It's disappointing that despite the creative approach, the humor is often juvenile. That's not to say all the jokes miss their mark, it's just that the "interview" segments are often so much more clever than the jokes featured in the story itself. The characters also seem rushed, and not as developed as they should be. Cody and Lani's relationship never really builds, they just find themselves liking each other. I also wish more could have been done with the greedy competition promoter who, as voiced by the always excellent James Woods, seems like a much more interesting villain character than the brainless and egotistical Tank.

Now, I don't want to stress only the negatives, as this is not a bad movie at all. Even if the movie doesn't always deliver on the laughs, it is often fun to watch. I liked the look of Surf's Up quite a lot. It has a much less "realistic" look to it than last November's Happy Feet, as all of the characters are drawn in a much more exaggerated cartoon style. Still, there are some impressive sequences, such as when Cody and Lani go flying down a winding volcanic path. And even if the characters aren't quite as memorable as they should be, the performances are generally top tier all the way around. Shia LeBeouf once again proves he's one of the best young adult actors working in Hollywood today, and I can't wait to see how his career progresses, as I think he's the real thing. He bring a lot of humanity and humor to his line readings as Cody, and makes him a character we can easily get behind. Jeff Bridges is also a stand out as the mysterious penguin who takes Cody under his wing, and teaches him about Big Z's philosophy on surfing. The film also includes a fun soundtrack featuring both modern and classic songs that fit the action nicely.
We may have seen it all before, but the unique approach and generally strong production values help lift Surf's Up a little higher than it would if the filmmakers had chosen the more standard route. If anything, the film is a step up from Sony Animation Studio's last attempt - the terrible Open Season. This movie has plenty of charm and good ideas, but it lacks the intelligence in its humor to go along with it. With a smarter and tighter sense of humor, this could have been a blast. As it is, Surf's Up will have to settle for being very cute and entertaining, but just a little bit too slight for its own good. If anyone ever tries to do another animated "documentary" film, may I suggest hiring Christopher Guest to do the screenplay? He's certainly got the experience.



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