I have a lifelong love of good animation. This is why I consistently go to films like “Open Season”, “Meet The Robinsons” and “Cars”, always searching for that next great piece of animation. You know, the type that can rival “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast:” or “The Incredibles” and remain a classic for future generations.
Because of this, I frequently read interviews and books on and about animation. In a recent biography of Walt Disney, he is quoted as being dissatisfied with his animator’s ability to create water for his shorts and features. I have read on more than one occasion that other animators have felt the same way. Apparently, that problem no longer exists. In “Surf’s Up”, the newest offering from Sony Pictures Animation, the people who brought us the above average “Open Season”, nails the animation of water, water of all kinds, waves, placid pools, half pipes, rain and more. This one aspect of the film is simply stunning to watch. It actually looks like the filmmakers photographed water and added the cute little penguins later. In fact, a lot of the animation looks so real that it might have been photographed.
Will “Surf’s Up” join the pantheon of classics? I don’t think so, but it is a very entertaining film. It just lacks a little more sly humor, a little more zing to bring it to this level.
But as it is, “Surf’s” is the best non-Pixar/ non-Disney film I have seen in some time.
The film is designed to resemble a documentary; the type that might be seen on ESPN. The filmmaker’s interview Cody (Shia LaBeouf) at his home in Antarctica. Big Z, a surfing icon, went on a press tour after winning his ninth surfing championship. The tour included a stop in Antarctica, allowing a young Cody to meet his idol. His mother and brother have come to accept Cody’s love for surfing, but the rest of their community can’t understand why he won’t help with their collective daily chores. And Cody doesn’t understand what point there is to sorting fish, so there you have it. Then one day, Reggie Belafonte (James Woods), a sea otter with a Don King do, decides to send out a scouting expedition; he needs to find the best competition for his upcoming Surf Championship. His current champion, Tank (Diedrich Bader), the surfer who originally beat Big Z, is too good and the publicity level is down. So he sends Mikey (Mario Cantone), his assistant, a bird, out on the whale and they scour the penguin communities around the globe. When they arrive in Antarctica, Cody jumps at the chance and won’t take no. Finally, Big Mike relents and they make their way back to Pengu Island for the big meet. Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) is also ready to compete. On the island, they meet Lani (Zooey Deschanel), a lifeguard. As soon as Tank meets Cody, their rivalry builds and they enter a surf-off. Cody is hit by a big wave and Lani takes him to meet the Geek (Jeff Bridges), a penguin who is living off the grid and doesn’t like the intrusion. But Geek helps Cody and they soon challenge Tank during the big surf-off.
“Surf’s Up” is more than your average animated film for the simple reason the filmmakers are telling the story in a pseudo-documentary style. It is almost like we are watching a “Behind The Scenes” type of special made to coincide with the big championship. Because this style of filmmaking is established early on, it allows the filmmakers to move through the story quickly, interject some quick jokes, getting things moving fast. They are able to jump around without having to pay enormous attention to the conventions of narrative.
We also learn about Cody very quickly. Through some brief interviews with his brother and mother, we learn about Cody’s father and how the young penguin was deeply affected by the appearance of Big Z. This leads to a lifelong obsession with surfing, an activity many in his community don’t understand. But the important thing is it makes him happy. And he simply can’t understand the importance of the community’s main activity, fish sorting.
When Mike arrives, Cody doesn’t make a good impression, but he won’t take no and Mike realizes this. So Cody earns a spot.
Shia LaBeouf, the new ‘It” Kid in Hollywood (he’s the star of the recent “Disturbia”, he headlines the soon-to-be released “Transformers” and has been signed to play Indiana Jones’ son in “Indiana Jones 4”) does a good job with the voice of Cody. As a young man, he is able to give Cody that sort of unsure tremor in the voice of most teenagers. I’m not sure if this is acting, exactly, he seems to have the same timbre in his voice in most of his roles. But it works for this character.
At times, Cody is suitably non-interested, excited, put off, you know, just about everything a typical teenager exhibits.
Zooey Deschanel is much the same. She simply seems to be voicing her role in her normal voice. It is good work, but not outstanding. As Lina, she becomes the love interest of Cody. A lifeguard, she shows a lot of compassion and empathy towards everyone, even Tank. Naturally, when she meets Cody, she is drawn to his natural likeability and tries to help him out, when he needs it.
The real voice talent lies in the rest of the cast. James Woods is very cute as Reggie Belafonte, the sea otter who is also the surf promoter. Fast-talking, with spiky hair, he will do anything to promote the Surf Championship’s that he is in charge of. In his book, there is no such thing as bad publicity. He grandstands, pretends to care when necessary, runs around, becomes the doting parent, all on the turn of a dime.
Jeff Bridges plays the Geek, a large penguin who is a beach-bum sort who lives off the grid in the middle of Pengu Island. He is very amusing, a sort of variation on ‘The Dude’ from “The Big Lebowski”, Bridges makes this character amusing and charming. Clearly trying to just relax his way through life, he doesn’t want to get involved with Cody and his quest to win the surf championship. After Cody gets injured, Lina brings him to her friend, for the Geek to look after him, take care of him. As they get to know each other, they realize they have something in common and the Geek tries to help Cody realize his dream, to become the next great surfer, just like his idol, Big Z.
Mario Cantone dials it down considerably for his role as Mike, the little bird who is Reggie’s talent scout. Fussy and overworked, he flits about and tries to keep things moving. It is a funny role and more memorable because Cantone doesn’t play it as broad as he could. If he played the role in his normal persona, the character would be unbearable.
Diedrich Bader (TV’s “The Drew Carey Show”, “The Beverly Hillbillies”) voices Tank, the large penguin who took the championship from Big Z nine years ago. Now, going for his tenth championship, he is full of his own stardom, surrounded by young admirers and cuts a wide swath wherever he walks, or surfs, and doesn’t care who gets in his way. He is an egotistic jerk but still has his fans.
Jon Heder plays Chicken Joe, a chicken who enters the surf contest and before he knows it, he is one of the top three contenders. Heder does a great job and I didn’t even realize it was him until I checked the credits. Throughout, Chicken Joe is just out to have good time. And this helps him get through all of the problems everyone else has to deal with. His love for life seems to lead him blissfully through the maze. This state of Zen adds a lot of laughs to the story.
“Surf’s Up” is funny, and well worth some of your summer movie dollars, but there are a couple of instances when the humor is directed squarely at children. There are a couple of little penguins designed to amp up the cuteness factor. This is fine, and inevitable, but they only elicit laughter during one of these appearances; the rest of the time, they are clearly pandering to the children in the audience and serve as groan worthy moments for the adults. Also, given the fact “Surf’s” is rated ‘PG’, these moments are aimed at kids smaller than the audience who will likely be sitting in the theater. If the filmmakers had concentrated on creating humor appropriate for the audience.
That overlookable fault aside, “Surf’s Up” is one of the better-animated efforts to arrive in the last few years.