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Movie Review: Surf’s Up

Surf’s Up
Directed by Ash Brannon and Chris Buck
Written by Lisa Addario, Christian Darren, Don Rhymer, and Joe Syracuse

Last year a flooded market of CG animation films wore out the artform and diluted the quality to the point that nearly all of them looked exactly the same.  And Sony must have wanted to hang themselves during production of Surf’s Up when they saw the deluge of penguin-themed movies coming out before them.  We had March of the Penguins, and in CG-land, Madagascar and the Oscar-winning Happy Feet.  Luckily, they came up with an approach that makes them stand out.

It’s the pseudo-documentary style, making the “camera” shake a bit, coming up with ”stock footage,” having characters talk directly to the camera, that intrigued me with Surf’s Up when I first saw the trailers.  It hadn’t been done in animation before, and despite the grainy look that was applied, the animation looked beautiful.  Still, I wondered, could it be engaging?

Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) is a penguin who enters a surfing championship on some tropical island.  He makes friends with Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), the faux stoner of the film, and later lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel), his love interest.  Cody is brash, he thinks he’s the best, but the competition has been ruled recently by megajerk Tank (Diedrich Bader), who knocked off the legendary “Big Z” to take the crown so many years ago.

Cody aspires to be Big Z, whom he met when he was a little kid and was awestruck.  After Cody wipes out in an impromptu challenge from Tank, Lani has him heal with the help of Geek (Jeff Bridges), who once had ties to Big Z.  Cody starts learning what surfing is really about and gets himself into position to win the championship.  But he’s got Tank to worry about, and Don King-esque promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods) trying to corrupt him.

At first, I wasn’t too sure if this movie was going to take off.  There were a great many of those kiddie movie staples like fart jokes, and it had a difficult time gaining some comic steam.  Eventually, though, once Chicken Joe and then Geek enter the picture, the movie starts to pick up and is very entertaining.  The mock-doc style is always an interesting feature, with some funny interviews intercut into the main story, although sometimes it loses the mock-doc presentation to tell the story conventionally, a bit of a flaw since the two forms of storytelling are radically different and it’s a bit jarring.

But, filled with likable characters, good voice work, an overall different approach, and fun, Surf’s Up is a good time, and it’s leaps and bounds better than Shrek the Third.

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