In the first moments of my first viewing of the trailer for this film, my thought was, "exactly what the world doesn't need, another computer animated film about penguins." But the trailer began to grow on me, it seemed like something I might enjoy. Sometimes it's good to have a kid for exactly that reason. I probably would have felt a slight twinge of embarrassment buying tickets for this on my own, but with a three-year-old in tow, it was no problem; and in the end I think I enjoyed the film more than him. When we bought the DVD, I was happy for another chance to watch the film, and glad to have something well made for my son to watch a hundred times.
What I like most about Surf's Up is the documentary aspect. From a style perspective, Hollywood computer animated films are about as safe a genre as you can find. You don't often see someone trying to push the envelope; everything is pretty much straight forward, letting the ideas drive the film, instead of reaching for any kind of new artistry. As a fan of surfing documentaries; from Endless Summer to Riding Giants; I love that they pull those aesthetics into the crisp clean world of CGI. In telling the story of Cody Maverick, the film goes through scratchy Super-8 footage, old washed-out photos, TV coverage of surfing events, hand-held cameras, and they even have the filmmakers talking to the subjects from off-screen. Fairly gutsy stuff for a family film about talking penguins.
They did an impeccable job in casting as well; I love Shia LaBeouf as Cody, he gives the character a good mix of cockiness and self-doubt, plus he just sounds like a surfer. And you couldn't do any better than Jeff "The Dude" Bridges as the old surf guru Big Z. Zooey Deschanel has been a personal favorite of mine since Almost Famous, she's fine here as Cody's love interest, but she honestly isn't that memorable. Jon Heder is good, as he does his typical goofy thing as Chicken Joe, he gets in some good one liners. Diedrich Bader is a highlight as Tank Evans, Cody's nemesis, he's hilarious throughout the film. Even though the film is full of "names", the celebrity casting for this film isn't as obnoxious as something like the Shrek sequels; the filmmakers actually seem to be focusing on what's good for the character, instead of another name for the poster.
The story is fairly straight-forward. Cody Maverick grew up a bit different, he's the only surfer in his small "town" in Antarctica. His family doesn't understand him, and they try to squash his dream. When a surfing scout shows up, on the back of a whale, Cody forces his way on board, and takes a trip to Hawaii for the Big Z Open. Big Z is Cody's hero, who everyone believes died ten years before; Cody discovers him living in hiding, having given up surfing long ago. The two become friends, through each other they rediscover the joy of life and surfing, Tank gets his comeuppance and everything ends happily for everyone else. It's a kids movie.
Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, they have created a nice little gem. It has a very sweet spirit to it, a soul hidden beneath it's commercial facade. I enjoyed the documentary style, which they stick to fairly faithfully, except for one scene where they go riding through some lava tubes. I appreciated that the humor didn't rely on pokes at pop-culture, so the film will remain fairly timeless. If Brad Bird and the geniuses at Pixar hadn't created the wonderful Ratatouille, I would have considered Surf's Up the best animated film of 2007. It's far better than the other animated penguin movie Happy Feet; it has a nice message to it, but doesn't cram it down your throat like that film. I think that it would make a nice addition to any family's DVD collection; and that even childless film buffs can enjoy it from a filmmaking perspective. - Grade: B+