Movie Review: Surf’s Up

They do it for the joy and the rapture and the slow-motion instant replay..

I remember 12 years ago when I was sitting in the theater watching Disney/Pixar’s Toy Story for the first time. The big selling point of the film was that it was the first all-CGI animated feature. Fortunately it also ushered in the fantastic era of Pixar story telling that always exceeded their technological feats.

So now fast forward to 2007 where hand drawn animation has been relegated to daytime animated cartoons and direct to DVD releases and CGI animation has become so commonplace that the story has to be interesting or entertaining enough to draw in audiences, and not just the fact that the images we’re seeing were completely hatched in a computer.

With all of this in mind, it’s so nice to see that a movie like Surf’s Up can provide computer generated visuals that instill a sense of awe, while telling a story that’s unique, touching and entertaining.

Surf’s Up is about a penguin named Cody Maverick, voiced by Shia LaBeouf (Transformers, Disturbia) who doesn’t fit in with his family in Antarctica because of his love of surfing. He soon gets his big break as a sports recruiter comes and signs him up to compete in the Penguin World Surfing Championship.

Story-wise, this film has a lot in common with the beach movies of the 1960s. There’s the mysterious surf hero named Big Z, voiced by Jeff Bridges (Tron, Seabiscuit); the goofy side-kick dude, voiced by the stereotyped Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite, Just Like Heaven); and the beach girl love interest, voiced by Zooey Deschanel (Elf, Bridge to Terabithia)—all of which kept reminding me of the Gidget movies, where the wise and seasoned surfer had to straighten out the naive newcomer.

What makes Surf’s Up so unique is that it’s filmed in a documentary style that mimics many of the reality TV shows that are on the air right now. This is quite a daring thing to do because of how popular reality TV is—it would be easy in an animated feature to make it look too planned out to work in that format. Fortunately, the animators do an excellent job and combined with the natural voice acting, make you feel like you’re watching something that was captured live on camera instead of being painstakingly posed frame-by-frame.

So, how did this movie affect me? Well, let’s just say that when I watched Cars, it didn’t make me want to drive race cars; when I watched The Incredibles, I didn’t want to go out and become a superhero (well, at least no more than usual); but by the time Surf’s Up was over, I was actually getting excited about the prospect of going out and learning how to surf! The CGI animation was so expertly done that I was actually feeling like I was getting a taste of what the sport is actually like. Over the last few years I’ve been lamenting the fact that the movie industry has all but abandoned traditional, hand-drawn animation, but here is a movie that would definitely not have been as effective if it was done any other way.

I think that Surf’s Up was hurt by all of the recent penguin movies. I for one sighed a bit when I saw the first advertisement for it, but take my advice—forget all you know about March of the Penguins or Happy Feet, put on Surf’s Up and get ready for a fun ride!

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