By Fred Topel | Image property of Columbia Pictures.
Surf's Up may be the best penguin movie yet. Once you get over the fact that even jokes about the proclivity towards penguin movies in Hollywood are overdone, Surf's Up raises the creative bar for animated movies with its twists on the genre.
Movie Review: Surf's Up
This documentary follows Cody Maverick (Shia Labeouf) in his quest to become a surfing champion. His family wishes he'd just work on the fish sorting docks, but he has a dream. When he's defeated by Tank (Diedrich Bader), only the presumed dead surfing legend Big Z (Jeff Bridges) can help him find his groove.
Now, it seems like there are the elements of the social outcast underdog, but it's really not played like the Disney model. Cody is an outcast but he's a powerful rebel, not some helpless sad sap. And he's certainly not a domesticated bum thrown into the wild. Obviously it's the sports movie formula but how many animated movies employ that? I can't think of one.
The documentary style adds inherent humor just in the timing of punchlines. They can throw up some text after you think you know where the scene is going, just to change things up. There are behind the scenes non sequitur incidents with really bold gags for a family movie.
Even the story pushes the boundaries of family film. Tank is a horribly inappropriate villain, destroying kids surfboards. He's not dangerously evil but that just makes it weirder. He's not lovably cute so he's in some purgatory of villainry.
The film never abandons the documentary concept, even when it focuses more on story than the fictional camera crew. It's always a little shaky to simulate handheld shots, and they periodically incorporate on camera interviews playfully juxtaposed to the actual incidents.
The conversations seem more natural. Nobody's speaking in broad moral taglines. They overlap and interrupt each other, but not in an annoying way. The filmmakers found the perfect balance between pseudo-verite and still getting the story across.
It's not full of pop culture references. Those are great too but not the half assed ones, so if they're not going to top Shrek, better they stick to adorable poop jokes (and truly, the kid penguins in this movie have the most adorable poop joke ever).
The chicken voiced by John Heder is still totally Napoleon Dynamite. He's more of a stoner, but it's still the same intonations and cadence. Back when he started recording, it must not have seemed used up yet. Since he did Blades of Glory, I'll let this last one slide. But that's it, Heder!