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SURF'S UP

Review by Gordon Justesen

Voices: Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder, James Woods, Mario Cantone, Dedrich Bader
Directors: Ash Brannon, Chris Buck
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Digital 5.1, Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio: Sony
Features: See Review
Length: 85 Minutes
Release Date: October 9, 2007

“Do you have any other talents?”

“Heh, you mean like singin’ and dancin’? Naw, man, I just surf.”

Film ***

There’s no question that penguins have become the top celebrity of the animal world in the movies. At the rate they’re going, they may even become more popular than actual human actors. Ever since March of the Penguins captured the world by storm two years ago, in addition to the hilariously psychotic penguins in Madagascar, we seem to be getting one big penguin feature each year since then. This year, penguins took to the waves in the surprisingly delightful Surf’s Up.

Of course, the film will get comparisons to last year’s penguin animated fest, Happy Feet, which may have been why it didn’t make the expected huge waves at the box office this past summer. But Surf’s Up indeed stands on its own as a visually engaging and frequently hilarious animated tale. To be quite honest, I may have laughed more here than I did during Happy Feet

One aspect that sets the film apart from the usual animated fare is the concept of how the story is told. Told in a semi-documentary form, with a film crew interviewing penguins and other animals as events take place, this is one animated movie that provides laughs in unexpected areas. And the animation is something to be admired completely. Judging by the sheer beauty in certain sequences, I’m almost positive this is a film that took some time to complete.

Fans of The Office or any of the Christopher Guest mockumentaries will appreciate the style in which Surf’s Up is executed. The film gets major bonus points for trying the mockumentary technique, which is a first for an animated feature. It goes without saying that a great deal of the humor will affect adults more than it will kids.

The focus of both the movie, and the documentary being filmed, is a young underdog surfer named Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf). Cody has long dreamed of becoming the best surfer amongst his penguin race. And he intends to prove so by traveling away from his home of Shiverpool to sunnier climates and participating in the annual Big Z surfing contest.

Of course, many don’t believe in him, most of all his obnoxious older brother. But Cody has believed in himself ever since the time he met Big Z himself, the god of the surfers, who gave him a look of confidence following a competition. Big Z was the most fearless of any surfer, and Cody has aspirations of becoming the same.

Along the way, though, Cody comes across an aging surfer veteran named Geek (voiced by Jeff Bridges), who thinks the young lad needs to be trained extra hard if he plans on taking home the trophy. Cody also gains new friends in the form of Lani (Zooey Deschanel), Geek’s daughter, and a goofy chicken dude named Chicken Joe. That character is voiced by Jon Heder, which should indicate alone that the label goofy chicken dude is most appropriate.

Cody’s main rival is the notorious and way too self-absorbed Tank (voiced by Diedrich Bader). By first glance of Tank, we can already tell that he’s an moronic lout who is so in love with his image that it’s sickening. But as the documentary crew profiles him further, showing a guy who’s so in love with all his trophies that he’s given them female names, well let’s just say that the word “creepy” would be more than fitting.

But of all the characters in the movie, the one generating the most laughs is the promoter of the surfing event, an otter named Reggie Belafonte (voiced to perfection by James Woods). This shady otter happens to have a Don King-like hairdo that I think would even make Mr. King jealous. All you need to know is that Woods is the vocal talent, meaning the character is a heartless, hyperactive and sarcastic self-promoter with a comeback for everything. Remember how Woods stole the show as the villain in Disney’s Hercules? Well he does that once more with an even more amazing vocal performance.

I should also mention the genius casting of Jeff Bridges as the wise old surfing mentor. Fans of The Big Lebowski will get a kick out of Mr. Bridges applying a similar “duder” accent. The only difference here is that Geek is not a stoned out bum/devoted CCR fan, but rather the Mr. Miyagi of the story, where as Cody is clearly Daniel-san.

Having been marveled by the film’s computer animation, it came as no surprise to me that directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck had worked individually on past projects for Disney. Buck served as the director of Tarzan, while Brannon was co-director of the marvelous Toy Story 2. Once that information is taken into account, it’s clear to see how so much of the beauty in the visuals came to be.

The film represents another strong step by Sony as it struggles to make a mark in the animation competition. Though Disney and Dreamworks continue to dominate the computer-animated market, I think the studio has a chance of creating some serious competition. After both this and last year’s outstanding, Monster House, I think Sony has a shot.

Although Ratatouille will unquestionably earn the title of the year’s best-animated feature, Surf’s Up is a sure-fire winner that easily falls into 2nd place (which strangely reflects a crucial moment in the movie). It delivers the kind of energy, laughs and all around fun that was missing from the rather disappointing Shrek the Third, not to mention that it will do even more wonders for penguin PR.

BONUS: Real life surfers Kelly Slater and Rob Machado provide voices for penguin sportscasters for the cleverly named SPEN Network.

Video ****

Sony’s DVD treatment is nothing short of a pure visual treat. Indeed, this title will get mentioned in the Best Animated category come this year’s DMC Awards. The anamorphic picture is stunning in its every frame. The color, crispness of the image, and the remarkable detail are all at a super high level. The last image of the movie, in particular, is one of the most stunning visuals I’ve seen not just in an animated film, but a DVD presentation as well. Superb all the way! 

Audio ***1/2

The 5.1 mix is as lively and energetic as the film itself. A lot of familiar rock tracks are included in the movie (Green Day’s “Holiday” and Incubus’ “Drive”, just to name a few), which all play wonderfully. Another strong area of the presentation are in the surfing sequences, where the simple sound of water splashing has a nice effect. Dialogue is heard terrifically, as well.

Features ****

Sony has done quite an amazing job in fitting all they could onto one disc, because there is definitely a lot to go around. We get a commentary track with directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, along with producer Christopher Jenkins, as well as Lost Scenes with optional filmmaker intros. Some intriguing featurettes, the best of which is “All Together Now: The Surf’s Up Voice Sessions”, which reveals how the actors worked alongside each other as they performed there scenes (much improv was used). There’s also a three-part documentary titled “Not a Drop of Water”, covering camera work, animation of waves, and storyboards. In addition, there’s one last featurette titled “Meet the Penguins with Mario Cantone”, and a visual learning of surfing-terms called “Arnold’s Zurfinary”. Rounding out the features, there’s a Progression Reel, Photo Galleries, three interactive games and a music video for the song “Lose Myself” by Lauryn Hill.

And as a special bonus, the disc also includes two animated shorts; the award winning The Chubbchubbs!, from 2002 and the brand new sequel, The Chubbchubbs Save Xmas.

Summary:

Surf’s Up offers a most hilarious look into a unexpected phenomenon amongst penguins. This gloriously animated tale is top-notch entertainment for both adults and kids, as well as one of the best-packaged DVD releases you’ll find this year. Grab a board and enjoy!

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