Surf’s Up
With Zooey Deschanel as the voice, I found this penguin sexy … wait … what?

Golden Mug

Best Animated Film

Theatrical Release Date: 06/08/2007
Directors: Ash Brannon & Chris Buck
Featuring the Voices of: Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder, James Woods, Diedrich Bader, Mario Cantone, Brian Posehn

Are you sitting down? You’re on the computer, of course you’re sitting down … unless you reading this on a cell phone … or standing up at a computer … wait, why are you standing at a computer? Whatever, never mind.

The point here is that I’m actually going to recommend “Surf’s Up”. I know the trailers made it look like some fluffy, only-for-kids, capitalizing on penguin popularity, CGI monstrosity. Okay, the penguin thing was right … and it is CGI … but this is one very funny film and I think it appeals to adults almost as much as to the kids that dragged most of them to the theaters last summer.

What the trailers don’t tell you is that this isn’t just a film about penguins surfing. The premise is that a documentary film crew are covering the rise of a new, young surfer, Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf). He heads to the big surf contest with big aspirations and in the process of learning what surfing is all about from his childhood idol, he finds out what life is all about too. I know that’s corny but I didn’t want to bother with giving out the plot points. Nothing here from a story perspective is much different from any other kids film.

That element of breaking the fourth wall and treating the film like a documentary brought a huge amount of fun and a fresh angle to what has become quite a predictable genre. The filmmakers (why do animated films always need two directors?) also added a really nice, subtle touch in making it appear that much of the film was done by a hand-held camera, à la a real documentary.

All of the voice talent was well chosen. The directors inserted themselves as the voices of the film crew which is actually a pretty funny idea. They even used real surfers Kelly Slater and Rob Machado and extreme sports analyst Sal Masekela as penguins for the SPEN network who were there to broadcast the surfing championships (is rearranging the letters of the channel enough to avoid a lawsuit?).

Then there’s the main crop of actors who voice the main characters. First off, I will admit that Shia LeBeouf is actually okay for this role. Wow, I haven’t thought that since “Holes” (Why couldn’t he have fallen in one). Maybe it’s that I can deal with him as an animated character since it distracts from his gawky expressions and acting “style” (Please don’t continue to help Michael Bay ruin my love of robotic, transforming toys).

Zooey Deschanel plays the love interest and I’ve always been enamored with her voice so this just made it creepy that I’d find some measure of attraction to an animated, flightless bird … when I was a kid and thought Ariel was cute, at least she was half-human. Jeff Bridges, the Dude himself, portrays a reclusive surfing legend and his gruff, stoner voice matched well with his character.

There’s also the likes of James Woods, Jon Heder and Diedrich Bader. Woods plays the slick talent agent always looking to find a promotion angle and his fast-talking and arrogant delivery always works for these kind of characters (as in “Hercules” and “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”). I’ve never been much of a Jon Heder fan but his roles as Will Ferrell’s skating partner in “Blades of Glory and as a stoned chicken in this film are slowly neutralizing my annoyance.

Then there’s the always funny Diedrich Bader. If the name doesn’t ring a bell, he was the neighbor in “Office Space” … if that doesn’t ring a bell, you have a new movie to watch on DVD. Bader plays the arrogant surf champion in the film, not so much a true villian, but his conceited and superior approach to the character was very funny and I’m only sorry there wasn’t even more about his character.

Perhaps the best bits of the film are the interview segments with three penguin kids. They’re comments are priceless (‘He’s a dirty trash can of poop’) and it’s also so cute, which appeals to the sap in me. One of them even has these lofty aspirations as a surfer but he’s too little to handle the waves and his continued near-drownings are adorably hilarious.

On the negative side for the film, there is Shia LeBeouf. I know I said he worked for his character and that’s true … I just have a mental block that sends a shiver up my spine every now and then when I remembered it was him voicing the character. There’s also the issue of the included music.

It wasn’t bad, it was just dated. The filmmakers made sure to get songs (from high profile bands like Green Day, Incubus and Pearl Jam) that related to surfing or to the vibe of the picture and that’s good. But when those songs are five to ten years old, it appears to be more about getting cheaper licensing fees; especially because you’re choosing songs that aren’t that old so it smacks of frugality.

Still, I thoroughly enjoyed watching this and hope that this will let a few more adults in on the secret since the marketing for the film made no mention of how much fun the premise would be for people old enough to drive, smoke, vote and drink. I’m giving “Surf’s Up” a 4 out of 5 and have belatedly added it to the best animated films list of last year’s Golden Mugs Awards. It doesn’t pack a huge emotional punch or deal with any serious issues but it’s funny and it will entertain you for 90 minutes – what’s wrong with that?