Surf’s Up is a documentary styled, animated, children’s story about penguins in the jungle who surf. A little difficult to put my finger on why, but this animated tryst kind of works.
Unusually small penguin Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) surfs the wake of a giant whale to the Big Z surfing competition with the dream of being a world class surfer. On the whale he meets Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) and they become fast friends. Chicken Joe and Cody Maverick get separated and each of them have their own small adventure. There is a small group of young penguins that comment on different aspects of the plot. The movie is animated documentary style and it gives it distinction from other animated movies.
I admit it, I was a sucker for the little penguins. They are pretty freaking cute. Their contribution was just to be gosh darned adorable and they were! I don’t care if it was a cheap attempt at “aaah,” they got me!
This isn’t my favorite of Shia LaBeouf’s roles but I think he was the right guy for this penguin. His voice — young, not childish — is still not so recognizable that he is distracting and he is usually spot on as Maverick. His stupidity is pretty funny and his naivete is charming.
Chicken Joe cracked me up, my giggles splattered all over the movie. On his own adventure, he is too stupid to realize he is in danger and says the dumbest things. Again, the jokes are simple and cheap but they work for the movie. Jon Heder is a great idiot…go figure.
Zooey Deschanel, who plays Lani Aliikai, has a voice that can only be called sweet. Her performance was solid but her character was generally flat. She is a cliché cartoon character; the sweet love interest who makes the weak male see his own value. Why are these characters always so soft and squishy? Why don’t they ever verbally slap their lilly livered boy toys into seeing their worth or better yet, leaving them until they find their worth. Why is it the female character’s job to be on the sidelines coddling someone who should know better? None of this is Deschanel’s fault, she didn’t write the story. To her credit, her voice and performance perfectly epitomizes the role.
I was constantly impressed by the distinctive “camera” work in Surf’s Up. Of all the things that could make an animated movie special, this is by far the most unexpected. The documentary style is very unusual and distinctive but really fun.
The way the film is lit also adds to the live action, unscripted feeling of the movie. While the animation is by no means revolutionary, it has quality execution and attention to detail. I loved the scenes when the surfers are in the tube admiring the water. The water is so beautiful and realistic looking, I wanted to touch it. The style kept me pleasantly off guard from beginning to end.
In the theater there were several children, all under five years old. Only one of the children lost attention. (In all fairness, their parents couldn’t be bothered to watch the movie because their conversation was so interesting; no wonder their kid couldn’t pay attention.) The plot is very simple, easy to follow with a small collection of distinctive strait forward characters.
Surf’s Up had enough adult jokes to make the movie work for parents. Sometimes the jokes get very close to outright “xxx” adult, but they do stay in the cloaked almost-innocent jokes. There is a scene in the movie where Tank, the evil penguin (kind of a non-sequiter, huh) makes out with his trophies and then promises to “polish” them later. The writers are careful to walk up to the line and occasionally threaten to stick their toe over, but stay in bounds.
Surf’s Up is not a must-see for people without children, but if your kid wants to see it, go. You won’t be bored and neither will they.