Dir. Ash Brannon and Chris Buck
Premiered June 2, 2007
I don’t know what was going on in the collective unconscious of the mid-2000s to make everyone go apeshit over penguins, but here we are. March of the Penguins begat George Miller’s Happy Feet, which we may presume begat Surf’s Up!, yet another kid-friendly flick centered around the lives of penguins.
Uniquely among films for children (as fas as I know), Surf’s Up! also chases another trend of its decade by being a mockumentary: just as actual documentaries were entering the mainstream of entertainment, so did the use of the documentary format to tell fictional stories. Surf’s Up!, then, is the ultimate conclusion of both trends: an animated mockumentary about anthropomorphic penguins who like surfing.
From the outset, director Chris Buck is having a ball with this project, featuring the most realistic water effects I’ve yet seen in 3D animation, absolutely gorgeous environments, and a much more enthusiastic and self-aware use of the documentary format than most movies or TV shows of its kind– like The Office at the time, and later Modern Family, the movie does occasionally forget that there’s supposed to be a camera crew walking around, but it’s still much better at remembering than most.
If only the story had been so inspired. Adolescent penguin Cody Maverick (Shia LaBoeuf) is an outcast in his native Antarctica who has entertained a dream of surfing professionally ever since a childhood visit from the late surfing legend Big Z (Jeff Bridges). Jumping at the chance to compete on the tropical island of Pen Gu, he’s injured after challenging Z’s cocky former rival (Diedrich Bader), and seeks help from a jungle-dwelling hermit– who turns out to be Z himself, having faked his death after becoming disillusioned with surfing. Z and Cody end up teaching each other some lessons; along the way Cody falls in with a sexy (?) lifeguard (Zooey Deschanel), stoner chicken (Jon Heder), and the otter running the whole show (James Woods, riding his Hades schtick into the sunset).
It’s fortunate that I get to review this movie immediately after We Own the Night. On the surface, both movies are visually extravagant but middling in story or character. The key difference is that in We Own the Night, the story is merely a pretext for the visual artistry. Children’s movies do not have that freedom, there’s an expectation of moral and educational value, and thus the visuals are in service of tiresome old kid-film clichés: the pre-climactic disappointment, the flibbertygibbet love interest, daddy issues to the point of self-parody– literally every father mentioned in the movie is dead– and so much forced conflict. This inevitably fails to match the experimental visuals or storytelling technique. Combine this with a ton of characters and a very lean running time (85 minutes, including a whopping 10 minutes of end credits) and you ironically get one of the most forgettable films of the year.
Signs This Was Made in 2007
The penguin thing, the mockumentary thing, the involvement of Jon Heder, the prolific use of Green Day songs.
How Did It Do?
Surf’s Up! grossed $149 million against a $100 million budget, a non-technical flop. Astonishingly however, it received a whopping 79% fresh rating and an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature.
Journeyman animator Chris Buck had previously broken into directing with Disney’s Tarzan (1999), and was one of the people who left the company when Michael Eisner basically dared everyone to. With John Lasseter now leading Disney Animation, Buck was persuaded to return, giving the mouse its biggest ever hit in motherfucking Frozen.
Next Time: 1408