A Mighty Wave
Animated Surfing Penguin Mockumentary Surprisingly Entertaining
They march, they tap dance, they escape from New York zoos--who would have thought they could surf, too? Despite/because of such recent family-flick attention, directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck chose penguins for Surf's Up, their surprisingly excellent animated mockumentary satirizing the world of competitive surfing. Local teenage oddity Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) manages to escape Shiverpool, Antarctica, to follow his dream and enter a surfing competition, taking only a necklace bestowed on him by Big Z, a legendary deceased surfer. From his arrival at the contest, Cody and his abstracted stoner friend Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) are clearly the new guys, even if Cody doesn't know it, leading to an immediate confrontation with reigning champion Tank (Diedrich Bader). When Cody gets his feathered tail handed to him by Tank, resident hottie Lani (Zooey Deschanel) delivers him to reclusive medicine-penguin Geek (Jeff Bridges) for care, and thus begins a comic relationship of immaculate timing between LaBeouf and Bridges.
The risk and colossal effort expended in animating a clever, children's mockumentary boldly pronounce the filmmakers' faith that their young audiences can and will appreciate satire. Opening with candid interviews with Cody and his mildly dysfunctional family, the directors immediately set the tone with quickly cut "shots," fittingly shabby-looking archive footage, and acute, oversize characters. Highlights include Cody's sulky, slightly stupid older brother, a megalomaniac talent scout gopher, and shots of aging penguins with comb-overs and Jewish accents dismissing Cody's outlandish obsession. The cinematography, if that's the right term, perfectly captures the documentary feel, as the "camera" bounces back and forth while the "cameraman" runs along to follow a character, or sits strapped on the end of Cody's surfboard with water beads on the lens.
Beyond an authentic look and feel, though, the style allows the directors flexibility in chronology and characters. For instance, just before Cody wipes out in his first confrontation with Tank, the scene cuts to an earlier interview with Cody, in which he looks forward to the camera capturing his first wave on video for his friends and family back home to watch over, and over, and over. Then he wipes out hard, then it's in slow motion, then the narrators discuss it in freeze frame, then the angle changes--it's an all-around good time. That being said, the writers seamlessly revert to more traditional narrative storytelling when it suits their needs, and it works.
Even when the subject matter darkens, the directors manage to keep it light and funny, with zoom-outs of photographs of Cody's father waving obliviously to the camera as an enormous orca whale rears up behind him, or recurring discussions in front of Chicken Joe about foods that taste like chicken--never mind several attempts to eat him by the native Pen-Gu-Ins, which leave several "cameramen" dead in the process. To this end, a summery, catchy soundtrack of bands such as Sugar Ray and Green Day serves the movie well, and helps keep the tone playful. And while the plot inevitably marches toward the surfing competition, the filmmakers miraculously avoid a typical overblown kiddie-flick climax, instead opting for laughs and heart.
Visually, Surf's Up is gorgeous. Sony Pictures Animation has succeeded in creating a believable alternate universe, where individual raindrops fall in lush, shadowy jungles and waves crash both fluidly and abruptly, instead of bobbing in too-smooth Jar Jar Binks-style animation. The movie looks so good that you simply accept that you've dived into a world where penguins surf and gophers have vertical hair, and promptly forget there's anything strange about it.
The directors also impressively manage to capture the surprising chemistry between Bridges and LaBeouf, and vividly translate it through animation. The occasional adult humor is subtle, like the tacky, vaguely pornographic soundtrack bumping while Tank shows off his surfing trophies--all of which boast female names--but by and large the adult comedy sits comfortably on the surface with the outsize characters themselves. Sagely, the juvenile humor of body functions, etc., remains compartmentalized through interviews with peripheral characters, leaving the central characters and plot line untarnished. For both children and adults Surf's Up's premise and message remain beautifully simple: To excel at anything, you first have to love doing it.