June 13, 2007 -- Penguins are the latest hot thing from Hollywood, starting with the excellent documentary “March of the Penguins” and the weird penguins of “Madagascar.” Now, we have surfing penguins in Hawaii in “Surf's Up,” following close on the heels of last year's fine animated feature about a dancing penguin, “Happy Feet.” This film is an example of how far computer animation has come in recent years. The waves in this film look very realistic, even though they are the product of fluid dynamics mathematical formulas, and not actual photography. The story is solid and so is the animation. Movies about surfing don't tend to make much money because surfing is a fairly narrow field of interest, but this film has more going for it than that. It has good characters and a lot of funny cultural references, like “Baywatch,” other surfing movies such as “Step Into Liquid” and reality TV shows.
The movie is filmed like a reality TV documentary with hand-held cameras (simulated, of course) we follow Cody Maverick from his humble beginnings in Shiverpool, Antarctica, to the the tropical island of Pen Gu in search of surfing glory. He was inspired by legendary surfer Big Z at an early age. When he gets to Pen Gu he is slapped down hard by reigning surf champion Tank Evans. Dispirited, Cody wanders off into the jungle, where he meets a reclusive surfer named Geek, who reluctantly agrees to teach Cody to surf. What Geek does is not only to inspire Cody to surf better, but to enjoy surfing again. Cody returns to the surfing competition a much better surfer and a more balanced person. Cody is also befriended by a stoner surfer from Sheboygan, Chicken Joe, who is no penguin, but who can surf with unconscious ease. He is also befriended by a lifeguard beauty, Lani Aliikai, who is often seen carrying a squid that looks like a certain “Baywatch” accessory. Another main character is a surf competition promoter with a Don King-inspired hairpiece, Reggie Belafonte.
The characters in the film are memorable, especially Chicken Joe (voice by Jon Heder of “Napoleon Dynamite”) and Geek (voice by Jeff Bridges, who seems to be recreating his character from “The Big Lebowski”). The story is just as appealing as the characters. One scene, especially, rings true. That is a scene where Geek tries to show Cody how to make a surf board. The interplay of those two characters is touching, funny and realistic. Any number of fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, or anybody who has ever tried to teach anyone anything, will instantly identify with this scene. Visually, the film is stunning in its ability to simulate waves and surfing. This is an entertaining film. It probably is not going to be the best animated film of the year, but it just might get a nomination around Academy Awards® time. This film rates a B.
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