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Surf's Up

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 06/11/07 20:29:08

"One of the summer's most welcome surprises."
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Some of you may be under the impression that the penguin-themed CG cartoon “Surf’s Up” is a flimsy also-ran arriving on the heels of “Happy Feet.” Yet “Surf’s Up” is by far the superior picture, bursting with imagination, charm, and a genuine sense of fun. Its flaws are noticeable but instantly forgivable, and we leave the film grinning from ear to ear.

The film is cleverly presented in “mockumentary” format, with a camera crew following a young penguin named Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) as he journeys from Antarctica to warmer climes at the Penguin World Surfing Championship. Viewed as a slacker in his icy home village of Shiverpool (ha ha), Cody strives to prove otherwise, his raw talent helping him break through as a rookie phenom. Along the way, he falls for the lovely lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel) and gets trained by a burned-out beach bum (Jeff Bridges) who’s hiding from his own past.

So yeah, it’s surfing penguins, which sounds eye-rollingly lame as a high concept, the sort of cheap quick-pitch idea a studio executive would approve only because it’d sell lots of toys. And yet look what directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck and their team of screenwriters do with the concept. The mockumentary notion alone earns them points for sheer brashness - it’s a risky move, yet they pull it off with surprising ease.

More importantly, look at all those little touches the animators do to bring this concept to life. If we are to believe a camera crew truly is capturing this cartoon world on film, then of course we would get water splashing on the lens, beads forming in ways that get you to appreciate the movie in terms of its smallest details. “Archive” footage is duly scratched and grainy. Shots of family photos follow the same pan-the-image rule of real-life docs. Granted, the film often plays too loosely with the format; like most live-action entries into the mock-doc genre, the camera follows its subjects in places a true documentary never, ever could, and with “Surf’s Up,” the filmmakers occasionally seem to forget they’re even attempting the doc feel, as several action sequences whiz by in a completely traditional set-up.

We’re quick to immediately forgive such slips, however, because the whole thing is just so darn entertaining. Not only are those impossible surf shots visually marvelous (the film doesn’t just talk about the awe of being “in the tube,” it shows it), but the story is sweet and gentle, and the comedy is dead-on in terms of laughs both intelligent and delightfully lowbrow. A knack for perfectly-timed visual gags prevails, especially, as with all great comedy, well behind the action and on the edges of the frame. More importantly, here is a cartoon dependent in great part on its voice cast (which also includes Jon Heder, Diedrich Bader, James Woods, Mario Cantone, and, in a brilliant bit part, Brian Posehn; cameos also include a handful of today’s top surf stars, as themselves in penguin form). The filmmakers let its actors play fast and loose with the dialogue, tripping over their own words, bantering with exquisite casualness. It’s as if we’re watching cartoon improv. (Did the cast record together? If so, it’s a smart move. If not, this is some amazing sound editing at work.) On top of that, the leads (Bridges especially) inject an emotional weight to the proceedings, crafting smart, detailed performances from behind the microphone.

There’s something else about the animation: body language. Most cartoons these days go through the motions of body language, but the folks behind “Surf’s Up” make it an art form. The way the eyes move, or the hands (wings?), or the feet. A slight twitch of the mouth. A jiggle of the tummy. “Surf’s Up” shows us so much without words, its characters popping to life by their actions. It’s not just about what the characters do but how they do it. It’s surfing penguins, sure, but when one shyly smiles or distractedly fidgets, the whole thing springs into reality.

The story itself is nothing new - kid goes from showboat to good sport with the help of some new friends - but the screenplay is to be applauded for its insistence in teaching its younger viewers the importance of having fun over winning. The longtime surf champ (Bader) is presented as a cocky, egotistical jerk, while the film’s most oddball character, the gleefully absurd Chicken Joe (Heder), becomes a role model to the audience simply by entering the contest just because it’d be a good time. Bridges’ beach bum character, we learn, once quit the sport because he hated the idea of being a loser, only to regret his decision ever since. He agrees to train Cody only when the rookie stops focusing on the trophy and sets out simply for the joy of it.

Most cartoons force their hastily-constructed morals at us with little grace. The message of “Surf’s Up” isn’t any less obvious, but this movie finds a way to offer its life lessons without any forcefulness. Perhaps the filmmakers have taken a cue from their characters’ laid back approach. “Surf’s Up” is a wonderfully mellow family comedy with all its priorities in the right place.

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