When you're a film critic, you see every movie possible. People with less imagination might say this cripples the critical faculties and hardens the heart. I counter with the theory that when movies are your life, it's a lot easier to spot a film that's made with care, imagination, and skill; especially an animated one. "Surf's Up" is such a picture.
Cody (voiced by Shia LeBeouf) is a daydreaming penguin living in the cold of Shiverpool, Antarctica. Hoping to join the ranks of iconic surfers like his idol, the late Zeke "Big Z" Topanga, Cody enters the professional circuit, looking to take down the favorite, Tank (Diedrich Bader). Unable to compete with the pros, Cody finds a friend in Lani (Zooey Deschanel) and Geek (Jeff Bridges), who reluctantly takes Cody under his wing and teaches him a thing or two about riding the waves.
Especially in the realm of family entertainment, a solid animated feature is hard to come by. Too many of them are slavish to a stagnant screenwriting template, fearful of offering the crowds something new because they might not recognize it. "Surf's Up' is hardly groundbreaking cinema, but it swims differently; rising above formula to shake up some new ideas and moods for a CG-animated film.
There are two extraordinary elements to "Surf's Up." First is the animation, which achieves a new impossibility in a marketplace that is starting to heat up with furious innovation. Directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck use documentary camerawork for much of the picture, stapling the story together through the context of a film crew following Cody as he lunges for his dream. It seems so normal to see handheld camerawork in a feature film that it doesn't even immediately register that it's all animated.
Also employing faux-distressed archival footage to cover Big Z's surfing heyday history (think "Endless Summer," but with penguins), "Surf's Up" consistently delivers in the awe department, but the tricks are very subtle. The directors are more engrossed in creating a world to explore than wowing with a few choice moments. Due to the fluidity of the filmmaking and the interview confessions of the character, the picture seems more immediate and comfortable. It's the first time in a long time where I felt like I was watching a story unfold instead of a commercial for future sequels and merchandising.
The second element worthy of praise is the voicework. "Surf's Up" is impeccably cast, playing to every actor's strength in subtle, undemanding ways. LeBeouf shotguns Cody's impulsive mindset and unyielding ambition to become a surfing legend; Deschanel lends Lani enough of her strawberry coo to make the character immediately huggable...but Jeff Bridges? Now there's something downright flabbergasting in his performance.
Much like his live-action work, Bridges is raising the bar for his fellow cartoon actors in "Surf's Up." Playing the haunted, resigned Geek, Bridges captures a tone in his throat that signifies a life lost to apathy, even exercising his lungs to express Geek's breathless obesity. So used to funny voices over the years, I was astounded to hear Bridges add so much character shading through his voice. It helps that Geek is such a strongly felt role; a perfect counterweight to Cody's youthful exuberance. But Lordy, what Bridges accomplished here is nearly groundbreaking in its vocal detail and warmth.
"Surf's Up" sputters trying to locate a third-act concern for Cody, but the filmmakers don't belabor the point. It's the lone pothole in a gorgeous, lovable animated feature that shows a degree of respect to surfing that I suspect will send the imagination of some younger audience members into the ocean's mightiest waves in a hurry.
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