Arnold: A winner is someone who doesn’t knock me off my surfboard, and break it when I’m trying to get some big waves. Especially Tank, he’s definitely not a winner.
Smudge: He’s a dirty trash can full of poop.
There have been many times in recent history that animation studios seem to have linked ideas. The first one that comes to my mind, when I really noticed this, was 1998. That was the year we had both “A Bug’s Life” from Pixar, and “Antz” from that small up and coming animation studio, Dreamworks. Well, more on those two later, but I remember being really sick of seeing trailers for bug movies that summer. Fast forward almost ten years later, and they’re doing it again. 7 months after Happy Feet was released, Surf’s Up came soaring into theaters. Given how I thought of Happy Feet, I was sick of penguins and a trailer about a surfing penguin just didn’t appeal to me. So I never saw it.
I actually didn’t see this movie for the first time until after college. My now husband and I randomly got it on Netflix (back when we actually had discs and watch instant didn’t exist), and we were both pleasantly surprised. This movie (much like Antz Vs. A Bug’s life) was NOTHING like Happy Feet. And in this case, that was a very good thing.
Surf’s Up is what happens when the Xgames crowd attempts to make a movie mainstream enough that everyone can enjoy it and everyone can experience what they feel when they do their sport. In this case, it is, obviously, surfing. It’s an extremely unique idea; who else would have EVER thought of using penguins as extreme surfers? In most ways, this movie really works.
Probably my favorite thing about this movie is the fact that it is filmed documentary style. It follows the adventure and experience of a young penguin named Kody who lives in Antarctica and wants nothing more than to be in a surf competition. We see old footage of when “Big Z,” an extremely famous surfer, visited his village when Kody was little. throughout the rest of the movie, the cameras follow him around, people off screen ask him and his family questions, and when he travels to the island to compete, they follow him around almost like a real competition or even “survivor.” It’s strange, but it also really works, especially given the subject material. You get that this is pretty much like an Xgames type event, and the documentary style not only adds for some interesting perspective and shots (that they may not have been able to get in other ways), but lends to enhance the story and the experience.
The animation is amazing. For being made around the same time as Happy Feet, this one puts that to shame. The colors used are awesome. I love that each of the surfer penguin’s feathers just so happen to be laid out in shapes and patterns almost as if it were a tattoo. The water looks extremely real, and the waves are beautiful.
Because this is filmed documentary style, it doesn’t always focus on the main character, Kody. In some ways, that’s refreshing. Sometimes we get a scene with a camera crew focused on a completely different character, or even a random scene that lasts two minutes of a camera man asking random characters different questions (think the talking heads in “The Office.”) By far the best thing about this whole part is the few scenes where they interview the penguin kids, Kate, Arnold and Smudge. Wow. They are extremely funny. The Cameraman might have asked something like “what’s your board made of,” and each of the kids gives an answer, always leaving the youngest to say literally the only thing that’s on his mind, even if it has nothing to do with the question. In other words, I really feel like they completely understood that this is what kids would actually do. Cause it is. While watching it, I was reminded of the Minions in Despicable Me. They’re that funny. But this came first. They just have a few scenes, but its worth watching the whole movie just to get to those.
One would think that with a documentary style movie, the plot wouldn’t be able to develop so much because, well, there’s certain things and places that “Cameramen” wouldn’t be able to go. But believe it or not, the plot doesn’t really suffer. Again it’s handled much like “The Office,” (hidden camera men during “private” moments). Granted, in my opinion, this plot is not exactly the most amazing nor the most interesting, but they do it well. Here’s a sort of quick run down (contains *spoilers*)
So Kody is a penguin from Antarctica who met his hero, Big Z, when he was a kid and now wants nothing more than to be a surfer. Now he’s a teenager and has a chance to try out for the Big Z Memorial competition (that’s right, Big Z is now dead). He’s so much of a whiner and so insanely persistant that they pretty much have to bring him along, even though he really isn’t that good. After reaching the competition and being completely humiliated by his big mouth and ego, he ends up wiping out after a 1 on 1 with the biggest competitor, Tank. Hurt, the lifeguard Lani takes him to her uncle Geek, to fix him up. Well, after spending an afternoon with him, Kody figures out that Geek is really Big Z and he’s been hiding out. After that it’s pretty much like the Karate Kid, with Kody trying to get Big Z to surf again and Big Z trying to get Kody to realize that competing isn’t everything; that surfing is a way of life. They both learn lessons from each other and in the end the competition is much more interesting that you’d think. And there’s a chicken that surfs named Chicken Joe. Yeah.
The plot’s doesn’t really have anything we haven’t seen before, but there’s nothing really wrong with it. I am very glad that they didn’t drag out the “geek is really Big Z” thing for that long, because that would have honestly been annoying. It seems predicable as you’re watching it, but the ending throws a bit of a curve at you. Kinda. Not really I guess, but it’s refreshing. Its not a typical sports movie ending. Let’s say that.
The characters are… ok. Some are really great, and some are… meh. Kody as a character is very developed. We know where he’s coming from, why he wants this so bad, and they honestly did a very good job depicting a typical teenage boy. He’s impatient, thinks he’s all that, and is unwilling to listen to a lot of people. He grows a lot during this movie, and while it always isn’t pleasant to watch, they do it very well; it’s very believable for a real teenage boy. Big Z is the other big character, and likewise, he’s also wonderful to watch. He’s a surfer that’s been burned. Times changed and he didn’t. You can hear the tiredness in his voice but feel the love for the sport and the water and the board in it as well. Jeff Bridges always has that “old wise father” voice, and it’s put to good use here. His experience playing “The Dude” also helped with this role.
The other characters aren’t really that developed in the movie, but they’re ok. Lani the lifeguard is fine, and thankfully they don’t really push the love story, but it’s slightly there between her and Kody. Chicken Joe is there for comic relief and voiced by Jon Heder. That’s all that can really be said about him, and if you know Jon Heder, that’s really all that needs to be said. The villain is Tank, and honestly he’s not really a villain. He’s not scary or menacing. I like good villains, and well, he’s just not one of them. Instead, he represents the change that happened to the sport: he’s about competing, not against being one with the water and your board. You know. That stuff. There’s some other smaller characters but they’re not really worth remembering. Except that there’s a sea otter with a tupée. That’s always cool to know.
My only other real complaint other than the plot is “eh” and some of the characters are “eh” is that I really didn’t feel like it was that long. It was over before I knew it and I felt like an extra 15 or 20 minutes might have really fleshed out some characters or plot points a bit more. But as it is, it’s cute. It’s definitely worth a watch. I can see it being the kind of movie you either like or don’t like, but I really can’t see anyone despising this movie. It’s very harmless. Give it a watch and see if you become one with the board, or you’re more like me and just find the whole thing a good “meh” kind of movie to watch when you don’t know what else is on.
I give Surf’s Up (2007) 3.2 stars out of 5.
Up Next: All Dogs go to Heaven*
*Yes, I know I said I didn’t own it back when I posted Anastasia. I have since fixed this. Yay for Half-Price Books! So we will be taking a bit of a 2 movie detour, as I bought that and the Brave Little Toaster).