By:Brian Thomas
Review Date: Friday, June 08, 2007

Not another penguin movie!

No, it’s not just another penguin movie. After March of the Penguins and a couple of CGanime features with penguins over the past couple years, one can expect to be a bit penguined out, especially after Happy Feet won an Oscar. But the poorly titled Surf’s Up is in no way a knock-off of Happy Feet, or any other penguin movie. For one thing, they started making it five years ago, at least a year before George Miller started making Happy Feet. For another, it’s a zen-promoting comedy, not a heavily messaged environmental gay disco musical. Plus, it’s not even really a penguin movie. It’s a funny movie about surfing, relationships and philosophy, which just happens to have penguins playing most of the characters.

The basic structure is that of a sports movie - not unlike some recent Will Ferrell farces – shot in mockumentary style. Outside of Comedy Central’s Drawn Together, this format hasn’t been used much in animation, and the idea helps to keep the film fresh throughout, allowing cut-aways to montages of “stock footage” and interviews with the characters. It also adds an air of absurdity – Would penguins living in a world where they have the technology for satellite networks still live on ice and dive for fish? One gets the impression that somewhere else in the film’s world there are cities and nations filledwith penguins, much like the society of dogs and ducks portrayed in the Disney comic-books.

The documentary is about young Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LeBeouf, this year’s movie golden boy), a teenage penguin in the remote village of Shiverpoole who has dreamt of becoming a champion surfer ever since he met his idol, surfing legend Big Z as a tyke. No one in the dull fishing village takes him seriously until a scout sent by surfing promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods, playing some sort of beaver or gopher) discovers him. Arriving at the island home of the big surfing championship, Cody almost immediately gets challenged to a grudge surf when he defends his friend Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) from bullying champ Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader).

Cory is totally outclassed in his match with Tank, and is saved from drowning by lifeguard Lani Aliikai (Zooey Deschanel). Lani takes him deep into the jungle to recuperate in the home of a hermit named Geek (Jeff Bridges). Following classic sports movie schematics, Geek teaches Cody the zen of surfing while Cody teaches Geek how to stop hiding from life, and everything comes together in the big surfing finale.

The animation is beautiful, especially once the action moves to the tropics, and plenty of clever use is made of effects to simulate the documentary filming. Despite a cast of well known names, the voice actors don’t overwhelm their characters. For the most part, you won’t be distracted by recognizing who they are without a cast list, and much of the comedy is enhanced by apparent improvising, as if the cast was given a script but told to wing it whenever the mood would strike.

With it’s good-natured humor (even Tank’s villainy is softened when we learn more about him) and pleasant imagery, Surf’s Up is an easygoing good time – maybe too easy. There’s an almost disturbing anti-competition subtext that promotes love and pursuit of a stress free life, but also rejects achievement. Is that any sort of message to be voiced by a bunch of guys that toiled for five years to deliver it to the public?
Copyright © 2007 Brian Thomas, author of the massive book VideoHound’s Dragon: Asian Action & Cult Flicks, available now!

Mania Grade: B
Reviewed Format: Theatrical Release
Rated: PG
Cast (voices): Shia LeBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder, James Woods, Diedrich Bader
Writers: Lisa Addario, Christian Darren, Don Rhymer, Joe Syracuse
Directors: Ash Brannon, Chris Buck
Distributor: Sony