I’ll be honest, I’m out of my element here. I don’t know how to review most of the computer-animated kids’ movies that are coming out these days. I thought I had a handle on Pixar, until it was pointed out to me that Pixar’s two worst-reviewed films are also their two most profitable (the Cars films, which apparently sell an absurd number of toys). There are some exceptions, but for the most part – the Ice Age movies, Madagascar, and the Shrek series – I just don’t get it. For a while, it was the same with the 2007 Sony animation effort Surf’s Up.
Basically, the idea is that most penguins like to stay in Antarctica, but some like to go to Hawaii and surf. Why? How? Don’t ask, just accept! Cody Maverick (Shia LeBouf) is one such surfer, and the movie is a faux-documentary following his life, his first trip to Hawaii, and his first entry in a big-time surfing contest. Along the way he befriends a penguin lifeguard (Zooey Deschanel), her slobbish uncle (the unmistakeable Jeff Bridges), and a surfing chicken (Jon Heder). If you’re expecting the big contest to be the movie’s climactic set-piece, then you know your kids’ movies pretty well.
About a half-hour into Surf’s Up, I thought it was going to be a pretty dire experience. The whole documentary aspect doesn’t really seem necessary, except to make me wish I was watching This is Spinal Tap again.* There were a few jokes in a row that fell flat. Also, a couple of Green Day music cues actually injured me with their dumbness, treating “Holiday” and “Welcome to Paradise” as if their titles were literally true instead of the songs being, respectively, a strident anti-war anthem and a sarcastic song about a kid who hates his parents.** Of course the movie’s target audience could care less about all of those things, which is my whole problem with reviewing these movies.
Then, the story with the Bridges character kicked in and I started enjoying myself a lot more. It’s really interesting to consider this movie and The Last Unicorn together: in the earlier movie Bridges sounds flat and unsure, but in Surf’s Up he embodies a real character, not quite The Dude from The Big Lebowski but close enough to be a lot of fun. The technology might be responsible for the difference: Bridges’ character in the newer movie even looks a little bit like him. He’s the best actor in the movie, more than LeBouf (a little too serious) and Deschanel (in a small role, she mostly goes to waste).
A big part of the Bridges story is that surfing is an art, something to be loved and appreciated rather than scored in contests. I liked that the climax of the movie practices what it preaches in this respect, because I was not expecting it to do that. But more than anything I liked how the movie parodies ESPN’s transformation of surfing and other “extreme” sports into a cottage industry. I was surprised to find out that the movie’s characters of “Kelly Slater” and “Rob Machado” are in fact two real-life surfing champions playing themselves, and I loved the jokes that surround a crass promoter voiced by James Woods. I have no idea if the writers or directors of this movie are surfers, but I sure thought they could have been, because this movie is at its best when it acts as a love letter to the art of surfing, as opposed to the game of surfing.
I’ll say this about Surf’s Up: no matter which actor is talking or whether or not the jokes are working, the movie looks fantastic. Water is one of the hardest things to animate correctly, and it is expensive, which may be why this film is only 85 minutes long. One of the bonuses of doing an animated movie on this subject is that your “camera” can go in and around a wave like few human-operated cameras could ever do. Every character looks textured and cuddly, which is kind of important in a movie about penguins.
I not happy with many parts of Surf’s Up, but on the whole it was a positive experience, and I thought kids would freakin’ love it. Turns out I was wrong: according to Box Office Mojo, the movie opened at #4 on its first weekend and only took in about $60 million domestically, which would not cover the budgets of most CGI animated movies. It might have been hurt by an inexplicable PG rating, earned by the most G-rated poop humor that I’ve ever seen. But that’s why I’m out of my element, I guess.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*The film’s Wikipedia page suggests that Surf’s Up is actually an accurate parody of the surfing documentaries The Endless Summer and Riding Giants, which I have not seen.
**You can tell this was done on purpose because all of the lyrics are edited out of “Holiday.”