I have to confess I wasn't too excited beforehand about seeing Surf's Up. After all, I'd already chuckled at the antics of the militarized penguins in Madagascar. I had wiped away tears for those brave birds in March of the Penguins. Hell, I'd even shaken a tail feather for the little guys in Happy Feet. When Surf's Up hit the multiplexes, the idea of another cute 'n' cuddly penguin flick sounded about as interesting as Robin Williams mugging his way through a heartwarming tale of self-affirmation.
So imagine my surprise when Surf's Up actually turned out to be a charming kid-friendly animated flick that avoids being overly sappy or scatological.
Taking a page from the mockumentary format popularized by Christopher Guest comedies (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show, etc.) and television's The Office, Surf's Up is set up as a documentary chronicling a surfin' rockhopper named Cody Maverick (voiced by Hollywood's latest "It" star, Shia LaBeouf). Toiling away in a fish-sorting plant when not enduring a rough domestic life with his mother and bullying older brother (Brian Posehn), Cody dreams of leaving his Antarctica home and following in the webbed footsteps of his hero, legendary penguin surfer Big Z.
Opportunity knocks when he is recruited by a frantic sandpiper (Mario Cantone) to compete in a big surf-off championship at Hawaii's Pen Gu Island. It is the same tournament where the Big Z disappeared years earlier after wiping out in a humungous wave, and Cody is eager to make his mark at the storied event. Cody meets the requisite colorful characters, including a blissfully clueless surfing chicken (Jon Heder), a pretty lifeguard (Zooey Deschanel) and a sports-promoting otter with a more-than-passing resemblance to Don King (James Woods).
Cody's cockiness gets the better of him. He wipes out in the first competition and ends up nursed back to health by an older surfer recluse called Geek (Jeff Bridges doing a slight variation on Dude from The Big Lebowski). From here on out, Surf's Up settles into a laidback Zen vibe, with the mellow beach bum Geek instilling in young Cody an appreciation for the sport that goes beyond the simple thrills of victory.
The plot isn't particularly groundbreaking stuff, but Surf's Up remains thoroughly likeable. The mockumentary is a nice gimmick that opens up comic possibilities. Particularly fun is the "vintage" footage of the Big Z, pitch-perfect clips that echo great old surf documentaries such as Endless Summer.
The picture's voice work is exemplary. The filmmakers were adamant that the actors physically interact in their voice-recording sessions (typically, voice actors cut their lines alone in a studio). The strategy paid off with a palpable rapport among the players, especially Bridges and LaBeouf.
In the end, however, Surf's Up might be a bigger hit with parents than the kiddos. Co-directors Ash Brannon (Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (Tarzan) provide the seemingly requisite amount of bathroom humor, but even at a lean 85 minutes, the film is rather leisurely paced. It's certainly a character-driven flick, with the Geek a decidedly interesting CGI creation. While that can mean rewarding entertainment for grownups, it might not fit the bill for younger viewers.The DVD
Presented in anamorphic widescreen, the picture quality is flawless, boasting sharp lines, rich details and vivid colors. Aspect ratio is 1.85:1.The Audio:
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is top-notch. Sound is crisp, clean and big, with no distortion or drop-out, and the rear speakers get a solid workout. Audio tracks are also available in Spanish and French.
Subtitles are available in English and French.Extras:
Kudos to Sony, which doesn't scrimp on the bonus materials. A commentary by co-directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck and producer Chris Jenkins is informative, if not particularly engaging. But fear not: The most compelling info is repeated elsewhere in more accomplished featurettes.
All Together Now: Surf's Up Voice Session is a first-rate featurette about how the moviemakers nurtured a rapport and improvisational spirit among the actors lending their voices. There are some memorable bits in its 17 minute, two second running time, especially a funny Diedrich Bader (perhaps best remembered from TV's The Drew Carey Show) and behind-the-scenes footage of LaBeouf and Bridges working together. Jeff Bridges, incidentally, looks as if he's actually transmogrifying into Dude from Big Lebowski.
Not a Drop of Real Water is the umbrella heading for three solid making-of mini-documentaries. Surf Cam (7:24) is a fascinating explanation of how the filmmakers appropriated the faux handheld camera movement that gives Surf's Up its documentary feel. Making Waves (12:56) reveals the lengthy process by which the animators developed the impressive waves for the surf sequences. Storyboard to Surfboard spotlights a two-minute, two-second scene through the moviemaking process (isolating storyboards, rough layout, animation, feathers and fur, effects, composite and final film). The separation of these components is also viewable via a five-minute, 19-second Progression Reel.
There are three lost scenes -- none of which made it past sketch form -- with optional introductions by Brannon, Buck and Jenkins. Nothing particularly notable here. Including the intros, aggregate running time for the three scenes is four minutes, 30 seconds. Curiously included is Doris-and-Sheila: Behind the Scenes, a two-minute, 15-second video of the sound-recording session with actresses Jane Krakowski and Mindy Sterling. Their contributions did not make it into the final film.
Meet the Penguins (3:53) is a self-explanatory vignette for younger viewers, while Arnold's Zurfinary (4:10) features one of the film's characters explaining a bit of surf-related terminology. Although the featurette is geared for children, parents might not appreciate some of the "it sucks" language.
Also for the tykes are three interactive games found at The Secret Spot: Make Your Own Surfboard with Big Z and Cody, Whale Hopping with Chicken Joe and Lava Surf Game.
In addition, Sony has attached two unrelated animated shorts: 2002's The ChubbChubbs! (5:33), which won the Oscar for Best Animated Short; and its brand-spanking-new sequel, The ChubbChubbs Save Xmas (5:42). Both films seem frenetic for the sake of being frenetic, and the references to Gremlins, Star Wars and the like strike me as vapid. But hey, it's extra animation, and you've gotta like that.
Other special features include galleries, a DVD-ROM component, movie previews and music video of Lauryn Hill's "Lose Myself." Whew!Final Thoughts:
With its laidback vibe and character-driven storyline, Surf's Up might actually be a bit subtle for the youngest viewers, but this flick is lovingly rendered and thoroughly likable. Moreover, Sony Pictures has packed this single disc with a passel of tasty special features. And that's totally rad.