Surfing penguin cartoon hangs five at best
Directed by Ash Brannon & Chris Buck
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel
Somebody told Hollywood you love penguins. And in a perhaps misguided attempt to satisfy your unquenchable desire for all things penguin-related, the movie studios have responded by providing you (and, by extension, everyone else in America) with a string of penguin-filled films. So far, we’ve had March of the Penguins,Farce of the Penguins, chunks of Madagascar, every square inch of Happy Feet and at least one episode of “Planet Earth.” ... Well, at least they didn’t find out about your love for unicorns.
The latest studio to jump on the penguin bandwagon is Sony Pictures, whose CGI toon Surf’s Up concentrates on a flock of surfing penguins. (Think Blue Crush with cute birds instead of hot chicks.) Having sat through the thing from opening shot to closing credits, I can honestly say I have no earthly idea why these flightless Arctic birds are living in Hawaii and surfing. Then again, I had no earthly idea why those penguins were tap-dancing and singing Grandmaster Flash songs in Happy Feet. But if you loved Happy Feet for no reason other than it was totally damn cute, then I suppose you might find Surf’s Up partially damn cute.
There are those who would label Surf’s Up “original,” and that is—in the strictest sense—true. No one has ever made a movie about surfing penguins before. Then again, no one has ever made a movie about giraffes who ski, either. That doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. (Although those cute, skiing giraffes would make a hell of a Happy Meal toy, wouldn’t they?)
Surf’s Up is actually constructed as a faux documentary, charting the rise of up-and-coming crested penguin Cody Maverick as he travels to the annual Penguin World Surfing Championship in Hawaii. He’s young, he’s cocky. He’s about to get a wise old mentor, meet a girl and learn a big life lesson (all to a 311-, Incubus- and Sugar Ray-filled soundtrack).
The voice cast in Surf’s Up thankfully emphasizes talent over star power. (Shrek the Third, I’m looking at you.) Shia LaBeouf (Disturbia) voices our impatient hero. Jeff Bridges (The Big Lebowski) is perfectly suited as the resident burned-out beach bum. Zooey Deschanel (Almost Famous) is on board as a kindly lifeguard and potential love interest. Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite) brings up the rear as the wacky sidekick, a dopey out-of-place chicken. Some of the actors’ dialogue actually feels improvised, which helps with the film’s “documentary” aspirations. Doesn’t make it any funnier, sadly, but it does help sell the documentary idea.
As far as the computer animation is concerned—excuse me while I put on my broken record—it’s no Pixar. Get used to that refrain, because I’ll be repeating it for at least the next 10 years. Surf’s Up doesn’t show off any particularly memorable style. Character design is simplistic (there ain’t a lot of detail to penguins or surfboards) and “sets” are limited to a couple stretches of water and sand. While it’s not as chintzy as the worst of the CGI lot (Doogal, Veggie Tales), it’s just not gonna move as many T-shirts as Shrek.
So unless you've got a deep, burning desire to see what big wave surf legends Kelly Slater and Rob Machado look like as penguins, Sony’s subpar combination of Happy Feet and The Endless Summer packs only minor appeal. ... That skiing giraffe movie, on the other hand, is a total winner. (Call me, Sony. I’ve got storyboards.)