Hollywood seems to have an infatuation with penguins! 2005 saw the release of March of the Penguins, which became the second highest grossing documentary of all time. 2006 had the animated penguins of Happy Feet, who went on to pick up the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature at a very “green” Oscar ceremony. In 2007 we have the best of both, a perfect storm of penguin movies – animation meets documentary! Obviously a solid animated film takes more than two years to make so this is all happenstance, as the directors of Surf’s Up themselves tell in Animated Views’ interview with them. Can you imagine their concern as they saw two films released with similar aspects to their own while they were in the midst of filmmaking? Yes, the films were very well received and maybe that would help theirs. But it could cut both ways. Maybe finicky audiences would grow bored with penguins in the time it took to get their film out. Luckily for us, they pressed on and the end result is a wonderfully original animated film.

This mock-umentary is a welcome relief
from the fractured fairy tales, so just wait for the copy-cats.

Surf’s Up is a (mock) documentary following wannabe surfer Cody Maverick as he deals with everyday life in his hometown of Shiverpool Antarctica while trying to make it to the big-time. Inspired by Big Z (his childhood hero) to never give up he fights on for his dream of being a professional surfer, despite his family and friends who don’t understand why he can’t just be like everyone else and accept some actual responsibility in his life. Fortunately for Cody a talent scout for the world famous Big Z Memorial Surf-Off finds him and whisks him away to the tropical island of Pen Gu to compete in the big tournament. After a major wipe out on his first day, he considers giving up. But with the help of a lovely lifeguard and her eccentric uncle he discovers what surfing is really all about.

The one thing that really sets Surf’s Up apart is the use of the mock documentary style. The documentarians (voiced by the actual film’s directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck) talk to the characters from off screen to get their thoughts and reactions to the events that are occurring. We get flashbacks and alternate points of views that help flesh out the feelings and motivations of the characters. But all that would be for naught if the filmmakers had not done such an amazing job at making this seem like it was an actual documentary (flashback footage actually looks old and worn and amateurishly filmed, boom mikes occasionally come into the frame, in dark scenes whatever the camera light is aimed at is lit more than the surroundings, people actually notice that someone is being filmed around them). This mockumentary style feels so new and fresh and works so well it makes you fear it could be the next fractured fairly tale gimmick that will be copied endlessly.

One of my big pet peeves in animated films is voices that were picked for star potential rather than how well they meshed with the character. Once again Surf’s Up scores. Other than James Woods as surfing promoter Reggie Belafonte, none of the other voices really jump out at you outside the character they are portraying – and even Woods’ obvious voice works with who he plays. Shia LaBeouf shines as Cody Maverick, really getting the bravado of the character across while allowing a small amount of vulnerability to creep in as well. Jeff Bridges has the laid back demeanor of Geek down pat. Zooey Deschanel and Jon Heder do what they can as Lani the lifeguard and Chicken Joe, but their parts seem to have been cut down as the interactions between Cody and the other characters were emphasized. And Diedrich Bader almost steals the show with his voicing of Tank Evans, Cody’s main rival. (Take note Hollywood – Bader is not only an actor but also is a veteran voice actor and he almost stole the show. This is not a coincidence!) The filmmakers apparently let the actors record some of their lines together rather than separately as is usually the case, and you can really see those more dynamic interactions is some of the scenes.

Great design along with the right voice actor makes a
memorable animated character. Just ask Tank and his “girls”.

The animation in Surf’s Up is stunning. From the frozen landscapes of Antarctica to the lush jungles of Pen Gu, every scene has something you want to look at. Some of the character designs, such as those of Cody, Chicken Joe, Tank, and talent scout Mikey Abromowitz, are really fun and help those characters really stand out from the background players. Sony Animation has proved themselves with Open Season and now this film to be a force to be reckoned with when it comes to the actual animation.

Last, but definitely not least, is story. Surf’s Up is a fun story. There are the almost obligatory bodily function jokes that could easily be left out. And parts are predictable. But when wrapped in the documentary style it all seems just a little more fresh. More importantly, the story here is tight. Everything here is here for a reason. The pacing is perfect. Nothing seems superfluous and nothing seems to drag. At the end you are left wanting more, not feeling that they went on too long. Co-director Ash Brannon, a co-director and writer on Pixar’s Toy Story 2 has definitely brought some of that studios famous storytelling prowess to his new home at Sony.

Surf’s Up does just about everything right and is easily one of the best animated films of the past few years. Original, well cast, beautiful to look at, and fun, it is a reminder of just why we love animation and clearly shows how poor the slate has been of late. Which, when it comes to Hollywood, means expect it to be mercilessly copied. Just ask the penguins.

Animated Classic or Back To The Drawing Board?

Surf’s Up
Columbia/Sony Animation
June 8, 2007
85 minutes
Rated PG
directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck