Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Surf's Up (2007)

I am a huge fan of animated movies, whether hand-drawn, CGI, or whatever the next generation turns out to be. Few and far between are the animated features I miss and if I were to list my favorite movies of all time the top 100 would have numerous entries as would the top 50, 20, 10 and even 5. On top of that I am a big fan of penguins, a fascination which goes back to the classic teen fable Mr. Poppers Penguins.

However, the previews for Surf's Up (2007) were things I found so disappointing I had low expectations for it and almost did not go see it. At last, however, an opportunity arose so the Goose and I went to view it.

It is a well-done movie. It is done like a documentary where the film crew makes occasional "inadvertent" appearances (a boom mike plays a pivotal role in one scene, Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) frequently speaks to the film, for that matter, does Chicken Joe (Jon Heder). However, it also takes advantage of the nature of animation which allows it to film impossible scenes and have the author's prerogative of showing action important to the viewer to understand scenes when simply seeing things from Cody's viewpoint might not get the storytelling accomplished as effectively.

There are numerous great visual jokes in the background, the dialogue is engaging, the characters likable...even surfing bad-boy (bad-Penguin?) Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader). His scene with his trophies is outstanding. Even the hyper intense, self-important James Woods is entertaining as Reggie Belafonte, the creator and promoter of the surfing event that is the focus of zurfing (penguin surfing).

The story follows Cody, a start-struck young penguin who idolizes Big Z (Jeff Bridges), the premiere penguin surfer who disappeared for many years. With a clever use of whale-as-ship he leaves his Antarctic home for an undisclosed beach location where he encounters a world of surfing competition. Along the way he befriends Chicken Joe, a delightful character who regularly steals scenes. Jon Heder created a voice somewhat different from his slacker persona he is perfecting in live-action movies, this one modeled more on the stoner culture without actually entering into it.

minor spoiler alert; the following paragraphs give away certain movie surprises and should not be read if you have not seen the movie and intend to

Cody proves to be not very good at surfing. Through a fun series of events he encounters his hero, Big Z who was lost several years before in a surfing competition and presumed dead (the tournament Belafonte is promoting is the "Big Z Memorial Tournament"). Big Z tries to teach Cody the MEANING of surfing but Cody wants to learn HOW to surf. For Big Z the meaning is the how, for Cody the how is the meaning. Naturally Cody learns the how and gets Big Z back in the water.

The climax is a surfing competition that boils down to Cody vs. Chicken Joe vs. Tank. In the end Cody demonstrates talent, courage, and his realization that surfing is about riding the wave, not the competition. In a clever aside to the surfing community several surfers have penguin versions of themselves and do the voices. Most of the audience will miss this but it is a nice inside touch for true surf fans.

It is interesting to note how strongly I disagree with the premise. Competition is about winning. To be sure things such as sportsmanship come into play but the bottom line is if you are in a competition you should do your utmost to perform to the best of your capabilities. There is a recent trend, particularly in animated movies, to promote teamwork and friendship at the expense of victory. Check out the finish of the climactic race in Cars (2006) and then in Surf's Up. While I do not quibble with friendship being more important than victory I do disagree with the underlying concept and build-up that Tank's love of winning is somehow morally inferior to Big Z's love of surfing for the sake of surfing. If you enjoy an activity for itself, great...but the point of competition IS to see who wins.

The bottom line is this movie is a visual feast full of laughs, good feelings, and good times. And in one of the more quotable lines, I must imitate Cody when speaking to his older brother Glen Maverick (Brian Posehn): "pppppppphhhhhhhhbbbbbbbbbbttttttttttttttttttttt"

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