After "March of the Penguins", penguins seemed to be everywhere, from the enjoyable "Happy Feet" to the unfunny "Farce of the Penguins." While "Surf's Up" may seem like just another penguin movie...well, it is and it isn't. The film is the latest from "Toy Story 2" co-director Ash Brannon and "Oliver and Company" director Chris Buck.
The film focuses on Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), a younger, smaller penguin who's the focus of a documentary crew who's filming his surfing in the Antarctic. His mother Edna (Dana L. Belben) and big brother Glen (Brian Posehn) treat him as if he barely exists, and neither are supportive of his dreams of leaving town to follow his dream of being a star surfer, like his hero, Zeke “Big Z” Topanga.
When surf promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods) sends assistant Mike Abromowitz (Mario Cantone) out into the world to find new surfers for the 10th Big Z Memorial Surf Off, he winds up finding Cody, but Cody can't find a wave. When Mike starts to leave, Cody decides he won't be left behind and hitches a ride to the island where the competition is taking place. Along the way he meets Rooster Joe (Jon Hender), a surfing rooster from Sheboygan, WI (a nod to the Midwestern surfing seen in the documentary "Riding Giants".) Once he gets to the island, he falls for lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel) and finds a tutor in “The Geek” (Jeff Bridges), whose true identity Cody eventually finds out.
"Surf's" won't be confused with a Pixar movie in terms of animation quality or script/story quality, but I thought it was probably one of the few animated pictures in the last several years that at least gets somewhat closer to Pixar's level. One of the pros of "Surf's" is that it concentrates on developing characters well, and the documentary format helps highlight the personalities of these characters nicely. The vocal performances are also perfect, especially Bridges and LaBeouf - the latter sounds like his character already in interviews, so it's not a great stretch. Woods plays up his fast-talking persona to good effect, and Diedrich Bader ("Drew Carey Show") is entertaining as the egotistical champ. The film offers a lot of ad-libbing and overlapping dialogue - definitely different than a lot of animated films and a refreshing change.
The film's animation quality is not exceptional, but it's still very enjoyable and aspects of it certainly impress. The film isn't as slick as many animated productions, but this is an intentional look to give it a documentary feel. Additionally, the surf scenes are exciting and well crafted, as well. While the film's documentary style isn't always used, when it is, the film does seem respectful to the "Riding Giants" and "Dogtown and Z-Boys" documentaries that inspired this aspect of the film.
Overall, this was a funny, sweet and smart little animated film that does a very nice job appealing to both kids and adults.
VIDEO: "Surf's Up" is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. A little bit of film grain has been added to the picture to give it more of an organic, documentary feel. Sharpness and detail were not to the level where one could notice every small object detail, but definition was fine and the slightly soft appearance of the image is apparently intentional. No edge enhancement appeared, but a few slight instances of artifacting were seen. Colors looked rich and bright, with very nice saturation and no smearing or other concerns.
SOUND: The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack isn't going to be used as a demo, but it's still quite entertaining. Mychael Danna's pleasant, often elegant score was superbly presented here, sounding rich and full. Dialogue and effects sounded well-recorded and clean.
EXTRAS: Producer Chris Jenkins is joined by directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck for an audio commentary. The commentary is a little on the dry side, but it covers a lot of bases: the filmmakers discuss the animation style, the decision to go with a documentary look, working with the actors, re-writes and more. Overall, it's an enjoyable commentary.
We also get 4 alternate scenes with intros from the filmmakers, as well as "All Together Now", which gives a nice overview of the recording sessions with the actors and some of the other voice artists, including pro surfer Kelly Slater. "Not a Drop of Real Water" takes a look - in three parts - at the film's effects and visual style. "Meet the Penguins" is a look at the film's cast and a few feathered friends who were invited to a premiere.
"Progression Reels" show the viewer the different layers that go into a scene, from the bare basics to the final scene. "Arnold's Zurfinary" is a short animated piece that stars one of the youngest characters in the film. We also get a trio of interactive games, photo gallerys, a Lauryn Hill music video and two Chubbchubbs animated shorts - the original 2002 Academy Award winning short and a new short, "The Chubbchubbs Save Christmas".
Final Thoughts: "Surf's Up" is a funny, sweet and smart little animated film that does a very nice job appealing to both kids and adults. The DVD offers very good audio/video quality, as well as a few informative extras. Recommended for families.
The Film B+