You've seen them march. You've seen them
dance. Now see them surf their way through an hour and a
half of pleasant enough jokes and predictable plot complications.
Next we'll see them fight World War II - in a world of grey,
they see only black and white.
By tackling the mockumentary form, Surf's
Up does expand the language of animation. Directors
Ash Brannon and Chris Buck have worked wonders pushing their
staff into creating the look of old Super 8 film and other
formats. On a technical level, too, those waves look amazing.
But it just doesn't add up into anything
all that spectacular. Whether dealing with penguins or not,
an animated movie has to have something compelling beyond
"wow, look what they can do in animation!"
Ostensibly a look behind-the-scenes at
a penguin surfing competition, Surf's Up follows
Cody Maverick (Shia LeBeouf) as he gets past his hero worship
of a dead legend and learns to be a champion on his own.
In the early parts of the film, the format works, cross-cutting
from interviews with Cody's family to taking a look at the
machinery behind the surf competition.
As often happens in mockumentaries, the
script starts emphasizing plot over logical documentary
progression. It sets up a real enemy in Tank Evans (Diedrich
Bader), the current champ, but long before Cody even knows
he will get to surf. In capturing that moment of triumph,
it does make it odd that the filmmakers would have tagged
this kid who really isn't very good as the stuff of a documentary.
Aside from direct interviews, Cody also
seems to be the only character aware that he has cameras
on him. For one brief moment The Geek (Jeff Bridges) acknowledges
a filmmaker, but for the most part, everyone behaves the
way they would in a cartoon, not as if they were being caught
live on camera.
Yet it has moments of charm. The "confessional"
interviews, not standard in reality television, feel unforced.
Three penguin chicks get interviewed, and they feel like
Most of the characters, though, have a
cookie-cutter feel to them, starting with Cody. Oh, heck,
starting with his name. Part of it may be that they're overpowered
by the voice actors. While promoter Reggie Belafonte has
a clever character design, James Woods blasts through leaving
us with no surprises.
Two major exceptions: Mario Cantone as
a little curlew talent scout and Jon Heder actually burying
himself in a stoner chicken. Seriously, Heder comes across
one-note onscreen, but he really frees himself up when doing
voicework. His Chicken Joe occasionally lifts out of stereotype,
and is almost unrecognizably voiced.
Still, the twists and turns of the plot
really aren't twists and turns, borrowed from many earlier
and better animated features. Nothing here will surprise
you, except that maybe that water really does look real.
If you have to see a children's movie this
weekend, catch the wave and go over to see Shrek 3