Ash Brannon and Chris Buck come from animating Disney features. But for their first directing gig together they have gone with Sony Pictures Animation to deliver the penguin comedy
Surf's Up (opening June 8 throughout San Diego). But don't worry, these penguins don't sing or dance.
The Dude...uh, I mean Big Z in Surf's Up (Sony Pictures)
Surf's Up is an animated mockumentary. Filmmakers Ash Brannon and Chris Buck play filmmakers (we never see them but hear them asking off screen questions) who are chronicling the life of up and coming penguin surfer Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LeBeouf). They find him in the Antarctic as a wannabe surfer inspired by a chance meeting with big wave rider legend Big Z (Jeff Bridges). But Big Z has literally disappeared from the surf scene. He wiped out during a competition with cocky young surfer Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), and was assumed killed in the punishing waves. Now a crass promoter (James Woods) has cashed in on Big Z's fame with a commercial surf competition that celebrates all the things Big Z hated.
Cody is picked up by a talent scout and taken to Hawaii to compete. There he discovers that his idol has turned into a fat, clam-eating recluse who hasn't picked up a board in years. Cody also meets Big Z's niece (Zooey Deschanel) a sweet lifeguard who refuses to give up on her uncle. Of course Tank tries to ruin everything for everybody along the way.
The mockumentary format of Surf's Up proves entertaining and gives the film a savvier spin than if the story had been told in a straightforward manner. So there's a running gag about the cameraman who keeps getting hit or tripped as he tries to film the candid interviews with Cody's friends and family. The film also plays knowingly off of TV sports cliches. There's also a refreshing attitude on display. Big Z's message is that winning isn't important. It's nice to have a film that genuinely doesn't seem to care about being top dog or top penguin. An old school surfer mentality pleasantly permeates the film and gives it a mellow, laid-back style. Long boards are held in high regard; hot dogging and competitive surfing are poo-pooed; and no one wears a goon cord. The rigorous training involves Cody learning to relax and have fun; and lying on your board by the setting sun can be just as rewarding as catching a big wave. Such an attitude is a nice surprise in a summer when the pace of all the movies is ramped up to the max.
Surf's Up is an animated riff on such surf films as Endless Summer, Riding Giants and Step into Liquid. There's even a funny gag about a surfing chicken from Wisconson that plays off of the unlikely surfers highlighted in Step Into Liquid and who came from riding the midget waves of the freshwater lakes near Sheboygan, Wisconson.
Heading for some tasty waves in Surf's Up (Sony Pictures)
The film boasts some effective animation that captures surfing with a fairly accurate feel. We get underwater shots of the surfers paddling, what it's like to be in the tube and even a gnarly shot of getting thrown around under pounding waves. There's attention to detail here as well. Background action is cleverly detailed and there are nice touches like having a sun gun on the camera so that when the documentary team is filming in the middle of the forest the area the camera is aimed at is artificially lit. One complaint, though, is that there's a lack of good surf music.
Voice casting goes for talent rather than celebrity here. Jeff Bridges as Big Z is an inspired choice. The only thing that could have made his part better was if they had been able to call him The Dude in honor of his role in The Big Lebowski, because Big Z is most definitely a Dude. Bridges has the precise laid back attitude and easygoing charm to win audiences over. Zooey Deschanel makes for a lovely and unforced love interest. Shia Le Beouf finds a sitcomy rhythm to his Cody while cameos by the likes of Michael McKean and Larraine Newman spice up the bit roles.
Surf's Up (rated PG) is one of the better recent American animations. It doesn't try to drill a message into you (like the PC minded Happy Feet) , it's not overly cute (like Disney) and it's not hysterical comedy where filmmakers try so hard to be funny. Like Big Z it's just content to kick back and be itself.
Companion viewing: Endless Summer, Riding Giants, Step Into Liquid, March of the Penguins