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Overall Rating

Awesome: 9.52%
Worth A Look71.43%
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5 reviews, 12 user ratings

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Surf's Up
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Would It Have Killed Them To Call It "Surfin Birds"?"
4 stars

I cannot tell a lie–I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during the pitch meeting that convinced Sony Pictures to put up the money for the new animated film “Surf’s Up.” After all, this is a film that deals with the subject of surfing penguins and is told in the faux-documentary style made famous in recent years by Christopher Guest–if you think that sounds strange in and of itself, imagine then being asked to pour millions of dollars into bring such an oddball concept to life. Whatever was said in that meeting must have worked because not only did “Surf’s Up” wind up getting made, it actually maintains the cheerfully goofy spirit of its central conceit for virtually its entire running time.

The film opens in the small-but-frigid town of Shiverpool and introduces us to Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf), a young penguin whose childhood encounter with legendary penguin surfer Big Z left him with a lifelong desire to ride the big waves, shoot the curls and utilize all that other jargon that I have forgotten since my last screening of “Big Wednesday”–sadly, he is the only penguin in Shiverpool with this particular ambition and the others look at him asa weirdo and a freak. His fortunes change when a scout arrives in Liverpool searching for surfers good enough to compete in the annual Penguin World Surfing Championships, the same event where Big Z apparently lost his life ten years earlier while competing against hotshot rival Tank Evans. Not surprisingly, Cody and Tank immediately butt heads the moment they meet and sleazy promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods) decides to use this new rivalry to his advantage and goads the two into a preliminary one-on-one match.

(Warning: If you are under the age of 10 or have never seen a movie before in your life, the following paragraph contains a spoiler or two.)

Because his ambition outweighs his skills by a wide margin, Cody gets wiped out by the unfamiliar waves and needs to be rescued by cute lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel), who takes him to the remote cabin of her reclusive uncle, Geek (Jeff Bridges) to recover before the big match. Before long, it is revealed that Geek is in fact the very-much-alive Big Z, a fact that you might have thought that Cody would have figured out much quicker since both presumably speak in the distinctive cadences of Jeff Bridges. (Then again, since we don’t actually hear Big Z speak to Cody in the flashback that we see, I can only presume that he never spoke to the kid and all of his words of wisdom were communicated via sign language or semaphore.) It seems that he became so distressed at the increasingly jaded world of penguin surfing–it was becoming about the awards and not about the simple love of penguin surfing–that he decided to simply drop out completely and become a hermit penguin. If you want to know anything else about the burning questions remaining in the film–whether Big Z/Geek will instill in Cody a love for surfing that transcends essentially meaning awards and accolades, whether Cody will convince Big Z to stop hiding from his past and rejoin the world, whether Cody will find the nerve to confess to Lani his true feelings about her and whether all of these questions will come up just in time for a big final rematch between Cody and Tank–you will have to seek those answers out for yourself because I wouldn’t dream of revealing the surprises contained therein.

Because “Surf’s Up” comes to theaters a few months after “Happy Feet” and since both tell stories about penguins whose unique skills are frowned upon on the home front but which find favor in the outside world, there may be the tendency among some people to simply write this one off as something that they’ve already seen. While “Happy Feet” is unquestionably the better of the two animated-penguin-based entertainments to hit theaters in recent months–it told a story that was surprisingly thoughtful for an American animated film–“Surf’s Up” is well worth watching because it is basically concerned with presenting audiences with 80 minutes of goofy fun and in that regard, it succeeds mightily in ways that will entertain younger and older audiences. Kids will the goofy slapstick, bright colors and the exciting action sequences of the surfers in action. Grown-ups will be amused by the faux-documentary conceit (although the conceit winds up getting more or less abandoned towards the end because of the requirements of the story), the darker jokes that creep in along the edges (such as running gags involving the fates of both the fathers of many of the central characters and the cameramen supposedly shooting the documentary–“Cannibal Holocaust” didn’t lose this many cameramen along the way) and the fact that as far as I can recall, the film only contains one poop-related joke.

Another aspect of the film that I enjoyed a lot was the voice casting. Too often in animated films these days, the vocal roles go to big name stars who will be able to get on talk shows to promote the project but whose voices simply aren’t distinctive enough to make any real impact. Take Justin Timberlake in “Shrek the Third”–everyone knows who he is and it is possible that he may have steered some people into seeing the film but can you recall an actual contribution that he made to the proceedings that couldn’t have been equaled by any other SAG member other than his name recognition? Of course, the stars of “Surf’s Up” are reasonably well-known actors but I don’t think you could classify any of them as a superstar quite yet–instead, they seem to have been cast because, shock of shocks, they were simply right for the roles. As the addled-but-philosophical Big Z, Jeff Bridges may be frankly recycling his immortal character Jeff Lebowski here but he still manages to walk the thin line between being a hilarious goof and instilling the relatively serious message of the film in a way that doesn’t make it sound too much like an After-School Special moment. Zooey Deschanel doesn’t really have a lot to do here but be the love interest but she has such an appealingly crackpot way of delivering her lines–her delivery of the simple phrase “Oh crap!” early on is enough to make you giddy–that you relish every moment she is on screen and patiently count down the ones where she isn’t. James Woods and Jon Heder are basically asked to once again play up to their screen personas–the cheerfully amoral sleazebag and the amiable dope–and while they don’t rewrite the acting books, they both know how to ring every last laugh out of the material they have been given. The only person who doesn’t quite register is Shia LaBeouf as Cody–there is a fine line between ingratiating and aggravating and he crosses that rubicon a little too often for my taste.

Alas, when you consider that it is being released right on the heels of “Shrek the Third” and “Spider-Man 3" and “At World’s End” (not to mention just before “Fantastic Four 2,” “Ratatouille” and “Transformers”) there is a danger that fatigued parents with rapidly emptying wallets may elect to simply skip “Surf’s Up” in theaters and pick it up on DVD in a few months. That would be a shame because while it isn’t a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, I personally had more fun watching it than any of those aforementioned blockbusters. Of course, when the DVD does come out, I will be sure to pick it up in the hopes that the producers have had the good sense to include a video of that presumably amazing pitch meeting in with the bonus features. If we’re especially lucky, maybe they will also include a short featurette explaining why they chose not to give the film the seemingly sure-fire title “Surfin Birds.”

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=15970&reviewer=389
originally posted: 06/07/07 23:07:48
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell alot of fun 4 stars
1/12/09 Anonymous. cute, i loved chicken joe :D 4 stars
6/13/08 Karrie M Cute movie, penguins surfing 5 stars
4/15/08 Matt Not the best technically-speaking, but cute and fun and not just aimed at tiny tots. 4 stars
10/23/07 Charles Tatum Some nice shots, but enough with penguins already! 3 stars
10/23/07 William Goss Snappy start, gorgeous animation saves toon from heavy-handed and overly familiar middle. 3 stars
10/13/07 Private Better than the ads made it look. Cute without being obnoxious. 4 stars
9/27/07 Noelle Cute movie. Entertaining for the target audience - Kids! Mine loved it! 4 stars
7/03/07 PamE great movie and concept 5 stars
6/16/07 Tiffany Losco cute, my daughter loved it. She kept saying the part about the trash can full of poop. 5 stars
6/13/07 bullit16 Cute. Definitely far superior to that 'other' penguin movie last year 4 stars
6/12/07 KingNeutron A fun ride from beginning to end; GFX are awesome. Must-see on bigscreen. 5 stars
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  08-Jun-2007 (PG)
  DVD: 09-Oct-2007



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