Surf's Up (United States, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

By now, I'm tired of penguins. After Madagascar, March of the Penguins, and Happy Feet, it's time to move on to some new species of beast or fowl. Yet I must admit that of the four recent penguin-centered movies, Surf's Up is the most entertaining. And, although it may not be the best-looking of those movies, it has the smartest, slickest script and the best voice acting. Even Morgan Freeman's narration isn't missed. In Surf's Up, the penguins aren't into saving the world or displaying family values or escaping from a zoo. They're just out to catch some tasty waves. In the process, they deliver the kind of wit we had hoped for from Shrek the Third but didn't get.

Surf's Up borrows a page from Christopher Guest's book - it's constructed as a fake documentary about the life and times of would-be surfer penguin Cody Maverick (voice of Shia LaBeouf), who travels from his home in Antarctica to compete in the Big Z surfing contest against the likes of good-natured Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) and self-absorbed Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader). Before he can take to the waves, however, Cody gets life lessons from his all-time hero, Big Z (Jeff Bridges), who's hanging out in obscuria. He also gets friendly with slinky lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel) and learns important truths about fun being more important than winning. It's kind of like a feathery stoner version of The Karate Kid with the Big Lebowski as Mr. Miyagi.

The script for Surf's Up is clever and hasn't been penned solely with six-year olds in mind. It's written on a level that works for adults and kids - something that hasn't been true of many non-Aardman animated features in several years. The film has plenty of funny one-liners, memorable moments, and pleasant digs at televised sports and reality shows. The "archival footage," scratched and tinged yellow, will bring a smile to many faces. Surf's Up offers a pleasant, satisfying mix - even the resolution doesn't turn out exactly as expected. Sadly, the film doesn't answer one burning question: how do penguins kiss with those beaks?

There's a lot more life in the vocal acting than is often the case in animated movies. Reportedly, directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck insisted that the cast interact while reading the dialogue rather than doing it alone in a booth. Whatever the reason, there's more warmth and a better sense of camaraderie than one usually senses in an animated film. There are no superstars, but the recognizable voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Jon Heder, James Woods, and Zooey Deschanel provide a comfortable level of familiarity. Eddie Murphy, Robin Williams, and Mike Myers are not missed.

If there's a downside to Surf's Up, it's that the animation is far from cutting edge. It's not ugly or unaccomplished by any means but, when stacked against the visual splendor of the otherwise unappetizing Shrek the Third, it looks second rate. The visuals in Surf's Up are good enough to tell the story, but no more. No one is going to rhapsodize about the poetry of the film's images. Nevertheless, the screenplay is of high enough quality that one is willing to look past the fact that this isn't the best animated feature of 2007.

As is often the case, it's the unheralded movie that provides the better value for the entertainment dollar. Even though it's teeming with the suddenly ubiquitous birds in tuxedos, Surf's Up will still be swamped by the tsunami of the inferior but better branded third Shrek. Hopefully parents will give this movie a chance. It's also good enough to warrant attention by adults unencumbered by offspring. There's nothing childish about Surf's Up. Brannon and Buck, both of whom cut their teeth in Disney's animation studios, have constructed this movie in such a way that it offers something of value to viewers of all ages. If you have to see one penguin movie, this is it.

Surf's Up (United States, 2007)

Run Time: 1:25
U.S. Release Date: 2007-06-08
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1