a critiQal film review Surf’s Up (2007)

Plot: A documentary crew follows penguin Cody Maverick (LaBeouf) from his hometown of Shiverpool, Antartica to the Penguin World Surfing Championship on Pen Gu Island.

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First up this weekend: Surf’s Up, the recent animated film from Sony Pictures Animation. While we are both a big fan of animated films (although I spread the love of animation into anime), SPA’s previous film, Open Season (2006) didn’t exactly become one of our must-own DVDs.

Still, the previews for Surf’s Up looked interesting, so we figured we’d give SPA another shot. After all, a “mockumentary” about surfing penguins sounded like fun…and the animation looked pretty good too.

Sony Pictures Animation did something a little different when making Surf’s Up. While most animated films have the actors in separate rooms (and usually at separate times) when they are reciting their lines for the film, SPA decided to see what would happen if they put the actors together and let them ad-lib a lot of their dialogue.

It works wonderfully in Surf’s Up, as that freestylin’ ad-lib seems to put the actors more at ease, and lets the dialogue flow smoothly. Plus, it tosses in a lot of hilarious one-liners (Chicken Joe at one point mutters “My nuggets are tingling”). Even the scenes between the characters seem much more realistic (a sequence between Geek, the older penguin and Cody, the young, brash penguin as they build a surfboard may conjure up memories for some parents…and some kids as well).

This type of camaraderie on the set of Surf’s Up also doesn’t put one actor above any of the others. Whether it’s a relative newcomer like Shia LaBeouf, Jon Heder, or Zooey Deschanel or a veteran like Jeff Bridges or James Woods, they bring out the best in their fellow actors, and combine to make for a wonderful ensemble cast. Animated films tend to work better when the whole cast performs well (Shrek (2001) is a good example), rather than having one star performance overlaid over a lot of sub-par performances. All it takes is one bad bit of voice acting, and the entire movie loses some of it’s appeal (Justin Timberlake in Shrek the Third (2007), for example).

With such stellar proof of how well this technique works, it would be a major step backward for SPA if they decided to go back to the one-on-one approach to voice acting…so let’s hope they keep going in this direction.

Most “family” movies these days fail to walk the thin line needed, creating a more kid-friendly film that is definitely not adult-friendly. The kids’ll go nuts, the parents will yawn. With Surf’s Up, they manage to actually stick to that line, however, creating a film that both the young and the old should enjoy. This may be thanks, partly at least, to the “mockumentary” feel of the film. While the story itself tries to teach kids about morals and doing what’s right, the adults will enjoy the documentary part of the film, laughing at the obvious film crew reference to March Of The Penguins…not to mention almost every show on the Discovery channel. Oh, and not to be left out is the fun reference to Happy Feet (2006) (Cody is asked “Do you sing and dance too?” to which he replies “Nah…just surf.”) and the very laid-back demeanor of Chicken Joe should keep the adult members of the audience laughing alongside the younger generation.

Surf’s Up shows vast improvements in the way water is animated, with the waves looking realistic enough to touch. They do need to work a bit on the characters, however, as their appearance is mostly unaffected by the water in this film (something the viewer probably won’t notice until after the film is done, thankfully). Despite that, the water is an amazing breakthrough in computer animation, and is impressive on-screen, and none of the animation in the film is sub-par.

Obviously, Heather and I enjoyed Surf’s Up tremendously. While it does have a few shortcomings (it’s characters rarely seem to get wet, despite being in the water almost all the time), it’s amazing breakthrough in water animation and it’s realistic dialogue (thanks to the “all together” technique from Sony Computer Animation) makes this film the best penguin movie we’ve seen since the Christmas special Opus N’ Bill in A Wish For Wings That Work…but since I’ve got a tattoo of Opus on my shoulder, I may be a bit biased when it comes to that.

As an added bonus, the DVD marks the return of the Chubb Chubbs (first seen on the Men in Black II (2002) DVD) for a second animated short film, titled The Chubb Chubbs Save Xmas…and the first animated short, The Chubb Chubbs is also included for those of you who missed it the first time around. Plus, the DVD is packed full of fun and games for the kids and a couple of “Progression Reels” -showing the process behind animating the scenes – for the adults.

So what are you waiting for? Rent Surf’s Up today, and you’ll catch the wave of fun too, no matter what age you are.

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