Image courtesy of www.impawards.com
Ash Brannon & Chris Buck
Shia LaBeouf .Cody Maverick (voice)
Jeff Bridges. Big Z/Geek (voice)
Zooey Deschanel. Lani Aliikai (voice)
Jon Heder .Chicken Joe (voice)
James Woods. Reggie Belafonte (voice)
Diedrich Bader .Tank Evans (voice)
Animated penguins seem to be all the rage in the last three years, garnering a major role in Madagascar as well as their own film in Happy Feet. Coupled with the hit documentary March of the Penguins, penguins have leaped to the forefront of the talking animal genre. And if Surf’s Up is anything, it is that hopefully the wave of films has reached its peak and another species of animated critter will come to the forefront.
Following a mockumentary style pioneered by Chris Guest, Surf’s Up follows the tale of a teenaged Cody Maverick (Shia LeBeouf). Cody is a surfer in Antarctica who gets the break of a lifetime and is able to compete in the 10th annual Big Z Surfing Invitational, hosted by promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods). Miles away from his home and his family, Cody has to discover the inner peace of the art of surfing from Big Z (Jeff Bridges) himself, as well as pursue a potential love interest in Lani (Zooey Deschanel). Coupled with requisite best friend Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) and requisite rival Tank (Diedrich Bader), the film provides a lot of good laughs and entertainment. Too bad it doesn’t provide a film that isn’t marred by wholesale clichÃ©s of the underdog genre.
And at first, Surf’s Up is a different type of film than any other major studio financed animated film. Poking fun at the usual sort of meet cute moments as well as having the sort of “production values” a second rate documentary would have (bad camerawork, et al), the film starts out with some great moments. Getting Cody from Shiverpool to the tournament, in terms of the story, is quite creative and ruthlessly funny. Ash Brannon and Chris Buck really seem to be having a lot of fun putting together the kind of poke in the eye that animated films have needed since the original Shrek. And in many ways the film is what Shrek the Third should have been in terms of spoof and satire. There are plenty of good zings and comedic moments that adults and children will both find funny, albeit on different levels.
The film’s voice talents are relatively good as well. While not perhaps an A-List in terms of star power, the cast is perfectly suited for the film. The former Napoleon Dynamite stands out the most, as Jon Heder steals every scene he’s in as the surfing chicken. It’s a role that is one of the few he’s done that isn’t a retread of his iconic character from Napoleon Dynamite. It’s interesting to hear him in the role of a chicken that embodies the sort of “California surf dude” mentality that is prevalent in stereotypes. The rest of the cast isn’t given much to do beyond being typical characters in an underdog film. James Woods makes the best of what’s a minor role, but it’s not the cast that’s the problem. There isn’t much creativity in the script, which is a bit of a problem.
Halfway through the film it goes from being a great mockumentary to being just like every other underdog tale out there. Buck and Brannon are in a groove for the first 40 minutes of the film, and then all of a sudden lay off the satire and attempt to make it much more of a straight-laced tale. The sort of clichÃ©d moments about learning lessons, et al, all come out and are relatively easy to predict when they’ll happen. It gets annoying, as the first half of the film contains some offbeat moments and the second half plays by the rule book.
The animation is terrific, however, and that is able to maintain some sort of interest in the film. While the characters themselves aren’t anything that hasn’t been done before, or better, the scenery in the film is fantastic. The water in particular is perhaps the best of its kind in the genre at this point; it’s hard not to stare at how realistic and impressive the waves are. It looks good enough that one could almost speculate that the film was shot in reality and then had animated characters put on it.
Surf’s Up is hopefully the last of the films about talking penguins for quite some time. While it does have some stellar animation work, and the film’s first half is the best first half of any animated film in 2007, it turns out to be just another ordinary film. And that’s a shame, really, as the film had much more potential than was realized.
FINAL RATING (ON A SCALE OF 1-5 BUCKETS):