Surf's Up (2007) / Animation-Comedy

MPAA Rated: PG for some crude humor
Running time: 85 min.

Cast (voices): Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Diedrich Bader, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder, James Woods, Brian Benben, Jane Krakowski, Michael McKean, Kelly Slater, Rob Machado
Director: Ash Brannon, Chris Buck
Screenplay: Lisa Addario, Christian Darren, Don Rhymer, Joe Syracuse

Review published June 13, 2007

It's hard to maintain an objective eye on a film like Surf's Up. It features penguins. Not that there is anything wrong with penguins, per se. It's just that there has already been a glut of penguin films lately (March of the Penguins, Happy Feet, Farce of the Penguins, Madagascar), and the tedium at seeing yet another feature film surrounding them unfortunately takes its toll on someone who has seen their share. Not to mention, it's another cutesy 3D animated feature, which taps into another glutted market. Another liability: mockumentaries are already vastly overused as a comic medium. Truth be told, it isn't a bad film, but in an ocean already teeming with films just like it, it will have a tough time impressing anyone who has seen a few entries in the recent crop of animated family fare.

The film is told in mockumentary fashion, not dissimilar to many of the more recent high profile surfing docs about legendary surfers and their influence on up-and-coming talent (a la Riding Giants and its ilk). Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia, Bobby) provides the voice of one of the young penguins, Cody, on the verge of joining his first surfing competition, the Big Z memorial Surf Off, commemorating the most honored of surfers, Big Z, who has long been rumored to have died in competition. His thoughts on the event and the training involved are showcased, along with introductions to fellow surfers, talent scouts, promoters, and others involved in making the competition as fun and lively as can be. Cody is cocky, but is about to get wiped out when put up against the world champion, Tank "the Shredder" Evans (Bader, Miss Congeniality 2), until he gets help from an unexpected place from an old surfer named Geek (Bridges, Stick It).

Occasionally clever, Surf's Up will no doubt please the audience for which it is intended, namely, younger viewers, as well as those who never get tired of cute animated anthropomorphic animal films that aim to entertain the whole family. It won't really hold the interest of many outside this demographic, as it is somewhat disengaging by being told through the faux doc format, which doesn't really tell a story in the traditional sense, and the satirical recreations of surf documentaries will likely go over the head of the younger members of the viewing audience.

As mentioned previously, penguin films are already overdone, and in the case of this film, not even necessary. Since the birds are all riding surfboards, the film could have been about any of hundreds of types of animals and still been the same. In fact, it could even have been about humans without much alteration in story. I'd wager that someone out there had been studying marketing reports to see what clicks with audiences, and penguins was at the top of the heap when it comes to animals with proven crowd-pleasing box office potential.

The mockumentary format is at least an attempt to do something fresh in the animated film world, but mockumentaries are only really funny because they mirror real life in an ironic, satirical fashion, often featuring comedians employing a naturalistic ad-lib delivery. When everything you see is clearly not close to reality, as well as the dialogue mostly scripted for the voice actors, the fake documentary feel is lost, often seeming like an animated extreme sports reality TV farce.

Surf's Up is cute, I'll give it that.  It's also voiced well, it's nicely animated, and packaged together with skill.  However, as a comedy, it isn't particularly funny, or really all that engaging as a story.  In this fashion, it's akin to watching an actual surfing documentary -- not terribly exciting, but warm and eye-catching enough in its quaint way to make for an agreeable viewing experience.

Qwipster's rating:

2007 Vince Leo