The humble penguin has had more than its fair share of screen time in recent years; in Happy Feet, the documentary March of the Penguins and as scene stealers in Madagascar. The love affair continues with Surf’s Up directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck who combined have a Pixar/Disney pedigree.
Surf’s Up opens with evidence that penguins have always loved to surf including hieroglyphs, cave paintings and even a surfing penguin in Hokusai’s The Great Waves of Kanagawa. What follows is a supposed documentary, in which a film crew who follow the fortunes of Antarctic penguin Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) in his quest to attend and win his first pro competition on Pen Gu Island and follow in the footsteps of his idol Big Z.
Brannon and Buck use a blend of CGI tricks that we have seen before and combine them with the camera language of reality shows and surf films. Therefore we get interviews in which the surf promoter Reggie Belafonte (voiced by James Woods who, like his turn as Hades in Disney’s Hercules, is the perfect mixture of sleaze and careless cruelty) is seen in a hot tub and has his nether regions blocked out. There are interviews with Cody’s mum and brother and a group of young surfers very much in the vein of Nick Park’s Creature Comforts. Along with the language of sports channels with the idiotic commentary and the action replays.
However, it is the all too short surfing sequences which really capture the imagination; filmed as if the camera was attached to the front of the surf board you get a genuine sense of the movement of the board and the water, as well as the facial expressions of the characters.
LaBeouf is good as the fame hungry teenager Cody and he must also be laughing all the way to the bank with three films out this summer (Disturbia, Transformers). Cody is helped along the way by his new friends, Big Z voiced by Jeff Bridges who perfectly channels his Big Lebowski character and who appears to practice the art of Zen surfing. Also lifeguard Lani Aliikai voiced by Zooey Deschanel who manages to make much of the love interest part.
However its fellow surfer, the hilariously laid back Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), who completely steals the film; Joe always sees the best in everyone even when captured by the mad native penguins, who make him their king and put him in a hot tub or so he thinks. Heder supplies the perfect voice and the majority of laughs in the film.
If this wasn’t enough it has a great teen-angst/surfer-slacker soundtrack with several outings from Green Day, Pearl Jam, Beach Boys and a new song by Lauren Hill.
If you’ve been underwhelmed in recent years with the lacklustre CGI animation on offer (Cars, Chicken Little, Shrek 3) then this might just restore your faith. It doesn’t try to play to adults but managed to entertain this supposed grown-up with its small scale action adventure with a heart.