Appellate Judge Tom Becker believes that only penguins named Charlie don't surf.
Our review of Surf's Up (Blu-Ray), published October 9th, 2007, is also available.
A major ocean picture.
In Hollywood, penguins are the new black (and white). The birds are two-for-two with Oscar, having won in 2006 for March of the Penguins (Best Documentary) and 2007 for Happy Feet (Best Animated Feature).
While the animated Surf's Up will probably not give these water fowl a hat trick in 2008, it's a cool ride. Sony gives us another impressive DVD release.
Facts of the Case
In documentary fashion, we are given the story of Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf, Disturbia), a teenaged Rockhopper in Shiverpool, Antarctica, who's obsessed with surfing. His family doesn't approve—Mom and brother Glen think the boy's a bit weird—but Cody dreams of being a surfing champ, like the legendary Big Z, who famously wiped out during a competition and is now in that big mysto spot in the sky.
Cody's big break comes when a scout for the 10th Annual Big Z Memorial Surf-Off shows up in Shiverpool looking for talent. This poor sandpiper (Mario Cantone, Sex and the City) is searching the world for the Next Big Thing in surfing, and soon Cody is on his way to Pen Gu island with the other hopefuls, including (somehow) Sheboygan-born rooster Chicken Joe (Jon Heder, Napoleon Dynamite). The Big Z Memorial is run by Reggie Belafonte (James Woods, Salvador), a sea otter sporting what we might call "promoter's hair."
At Pen Gu, where the event is being covered by SPEN (Sports Penguin Entertainment Network), Cody encounters Tank "the Shredder" Evans (Diedrich Bader, The Drew Carey Show), the penguin who was competing against Big Z that fateful day. When the bullying Tank mocks the memory of Big Z, Cody challenges him to an impromptu surf off—which doesn't go well for our little hero.
Rescued by comely (as far as penguins go) lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel, Elf), Cody is taken to the place in the woods she shares with Geek (Jeff Bridges, The Big Lebowski), a laid-back kinda older dude who, you know, doesn't get out much.
After being humiliated by Tank, Cody is afraid to go back to the beach. But Geek has a couple of surprises up his wing that might make Cody change his mind.
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I am a penguin fan. I'll plunk down ten bucks to go to an aquarium just to watch penguins eat. My heart grows heavy when I read about the diminishing number of Adelies due to global warming. As far as entertainment is concerned, throw a penguin on the screen, and I'm there. Even the worst film can be brightened by a penguin.
Try this experiment: Check out the review of Kiss Daddy Goodnight, the No. 1 disc on DVD Verdict's Bottom 100. Read the review, but every time you see a reference to Uma Thurman, substitute "penguin." Behold as a film of turgid dreck becomes an intriguing must-see for the entire family.
Surf's Up also helps support this theory, but more on that later.
The first 15 or so minutes of Surf's Up are as funny and clever as anything you're likely to see in a mainstream movie this year. This portion of the film harkens back to the days when cartoons were made with adult sensibilities in mind (after all, they were usually the openers for feature films). The one-liners come fast and furious ("There's only six months in a day"), there are some great sight gags, and the visuals that accompany Cody's account of the history of surfing are priceless.
Once Cody gets to Pen Gu island, and the actual plot kicks in, Surf's Up goes the more traditional route. There are still a lot of funny moments (many provided by the stoner Chicken Joe, on a mission to find Cody, who's gone missing in the woods), and the documentary approach helps the film find humor in some unexpected places, but you've seen this story before. Cody is an outsider trying to make good. In a subplot that goes nowhere, Cody falls in love with another character, and she falls in love back. Cody has a learning experience that deepens his appreciation of life. Cody's learning experience is at the hands of another outsider with a secret. And triumph and comeuppance await.
Whatever conventions there might be to the story, Surf's Up is a wonderfully rendered piece of animation with appealing voice performances. Sony gives us another exceptionally good release, starting with an excellent transfer and a Dolby 5.1 Surround track that delivers music, dialogue, and effects perfectly. This disc is literally crammed with extras, many of them offering a solid (if, necessarily, flattering) look at the technical aspects of the film.
In most animated films, the actors do their voice work separately, and the tracks are edited together. For Surf's Up, the actors recorded their parts at the same time, and the performances and interactions are stronger than what you might expect. In addition, much of the dialogue was improvised by the actors, giving the film an unusually natural and playful quality. "All Together Now: The Surf's Up Voice Sessions" takes us inside the recording studio for interviews with the actors and scenes of them working. We see and hear from every major actor except James Woods (who is nonetheless recalled fondly). Aside from the expected laudatory words, these people seem to have genuinely enjoyed the experience of making Surf's Up, and it comes across in the finished film. One of the most entertaining segments here involves surfers Kelly Slater and Rob Machado, and commentator Sal Masekela, all of whom have penguin alter-egos who are covering the Big Z Memorial for SPEN.
In "Meet the Penguins," Mario Cantone takes two real penguins on a tour of the production. We learn a little bit about penguins, and the penguins learn how an animated feature is made. It's a lot less goofy and a lot more entertaining than it sounds.
"Not a Drop of Real Water" is an umbrella title for three featurettes that examine the creation of the film's visual elements:
• "Surf Cam" shows us how the filmmakers got that handheld, documentary look.
• "Making Waves" examines the creation of the waves that, of course, are all-important in a surfer film. We tend to take realistic-looking animation for granted, and this feature demonstrates the often pain-staking process that goes into getting it right.
• "From Storyboard to Surfboard" takes a two-minute scene and breaks it down to its individual components; using the "angle" button, you can toggle through the various stages of animation that make up a finished scene.
Visual Effects Supervisor Rob Bredow shares some Progression Reels and describes how various effects are created (he again discusses the waves), lighting effects, how certain sequences in the film are made to look dated, composite layering, and other visual aspects of Surf's Up. It's a nice piece that cuts through the technical jargon, and it complements the other featurettes rather than overlapping them.
There are three deleted scenes that are actually pretty funny. The filmmakers are on hand to talk about the scenes and explain why they were deleted (they took attention from the main plot).
An audio commentary by Directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck and Producer Chris Jenkins is entertaining, but not particularly enlightening. There are some interesting "making of" stories here concerning the writing, animation, music, voice-over process, and so on, but much of the track is given over to pointing out what they were going for (which is generally obvious) and the usual praise for the actors. I'm glad the track is here, but it's not something I'll be listening to again.
In "Arnold's Zurfinary," one of the secondary characters (a very young, accident-prone penguin) discusses surfing terminology (words like dude and radical) illustrated with clips from the movie. It's cute and will probably appeal to younger viewers, as will "The Secret Spot," a collection of movie-related games.
We get not one, but two animated short subjects starring The Chubbchubbs: the original, which won a 2002 Oscar as best animated short (and has been featured on at least two other DVDs), and a new, Christmas-themed one. These witty and sweetly cynical shorts are a nice addition to this package.
All the special features are subtitled.
Rounding out the set are galleries, a music video, and previews for other releases.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Yes, this is a "family movie" and, by virtue of being PG-rated animation, geared for youngsters, but it would have to be a mighty savvy and subversive kid who would get even half the jokes and references. For grownups, the film really stalls when it stops riffing on extreme sports and documentaries and starts treading familiar territory. LaBeouf and Bridges are typically great, but even they can only do so much with a story that often feels like it's built from parts of other films.
At around the mid-point in Surf's Up, I came to realize that the fact that these characters were penguins was largely irrelevant. The same story could have been told with surfing monkeys, lions, dinosaurs, or any such animated mainstay.
But I'm sticking to my theory: I don't think Surf's Up would have been half as entertaining without penguins.
This is not a perfect or especially original movie, but it is immensely likable and sometimes hilarious. Sony's package is awesome.
Dude, do you see a guilty verdict coming here?
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary with Directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck and Producer Chris Jenkins
Review content copyright © 2007 Tom Becker; Site design and review layout copyright © 2015 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.