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Surf's Up (2007)

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 10/9/2007

All Ratings out of
Movie: 1/2
Video: 1/2
Audio: 1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 9/27/2007

The folks in Hollywood call it "synergy". Everyone else would most likely call it coincidence or in the most extreme cases, plagiarism. I’m talking about those instances when movies with very similar plots or main characters arrive at theaters in a short amount of time. Recently, we’ve seen this with penguins. First, there was the documentary, 2005’s March of the Penguins. Then, in 2006, we got Happy Feet. By the time that Surf’s Up arrived in 2007, it seemed that most moviegoers had had their fill of penguins. That is sad, as Surf’s Up proves to be a very good movie which goes outside the boundaries of the typical animated film.

Surf’s Up is a (faux) documentary which explores the life of Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LaBeouf), a penguin from Shiverpool, Antarctica. As a child, Cody met surfing legend Big Z and became obsessed with surfing. And despite the fact that Big Z died tragically in a surfing tournament, Cody kept his own dream alive. Although everyone in Shiverpool thinks he is crazy, especially his older brother, Glen (voiced by Brian Posehn), Cody continues to surf. And then one day, Cody's ship...or rather, his whale comes in. Mikey Abromowitz (voiced by Mario Cantone), a nervous sandpiper, is a talent scout for the Big Z Memorial Surfing Tournament. He has come to Shiverpool to meet Cody. Cody can't believe that his lucky break has finally come and he leaves his hometown immediately. Once safely on board the whale, Cody meets Chicken Joe (voiced by Jon Heder), a surfing chicken from Wisconsin who is a bit dim-witted.

The whale takes the group to Pengu Island, home of the surfing competition. There, Cody meets Reggie Belafonte (voiced by James Woods), a power-crazed otter?...porcupine? Cody also meets Tank Evans (voiced by Diedrich Bader), the reigning surfing champion and the biggest jerk on the island. While mingling in the crowd, Cody runs into Lani (Zooey Deschanel), the local lifeguard, and he's immediately smitten. During his first run, Cody is injured and Lani takes him to Geek (voiced by Jeff Bridges), an older penguin who knows about healing. Following this, Cody becomes somewhat disillusioned. Did he come all this way only to learn that he's not a good surfer?

From the first frame of the movie, it's clear that Surf’s Up is something different. First of all, it truly is a (faux) documentary. The movie was "shot" by a "camera crew" (voiced by co-directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck), who follow Cody around and ask him questions. While there is some poetic license taken here and there, the movie follows a documentary-like path and we only get to "see" what the "documentary crew" sees. For example, some quiet scenes between characters are shot at a distance, or there is a camera mounted on the front of Cody's surf board (complete with video noise when he hits a wave). The combination of "narrative" combined with cutaways to "interviews" keeps the movie very fresh. The other unique aspect of Surf’s Up is the way in which the dialogue was recorded. Traditionally, actors perform their dialogue by themselves. Here, multiple actors recorded together and were given free-rein to ad-lib. This gives the dialogue in the film a very realistic feel, most notably in the way that the characters interrupt each other when they are talking.

If there's one problem with Surf’s Up, it's that the story is somewhat pedestrian. Granted, I've never seen a movie about a surfing penguin, but I've seen plenty of movies with the "young boy leaves home to follow his dream and falls in love and makes a friend and meets a villain" story. Fortunately, the filmmakers fresh approach to animated feature films has opened up the comedic aspects of the story and allowed the characters to really come to life. It would have been very easy for Surf’s Up to have handed us very generic characters, but thanks to the voice-actors and the highly-detailed animation (more on that in a moment), the movie bristles with energy. Each of the characters is interesting and unique and they each have at least one stand-out scene. However, truth be told, it's Chicken Joe who steals the show. Yes, he's the typical stoner surfer dude, but he's also a very nice chicken and that makes his character very endearing. The easy-going nature which Shia LaBeouf exhibits on-screen comes through in his voice-acting for Cody, and even when he's being cocky, the character is instantly likable.

Every time a new computer animated movie appears, someone always says, "It can't be Pixar's animation." I think that Surf’s Up may have done just that. The animation here is flawless and incredibly detailed. From the lush jungle on Pengu to the way that Cody's feathers shine in the sun when he emerges from the water, much of Surf’s Up looks photo-realistic. The ocean and the waves look very real, and this attention to detail heightens the surfing scenes. But, there are more subtle things as well. The anthropomorphism going on with Cody is incredible. He sort of moves like a penguin, but just look at his face while he's surfing. There's such a sense of awe and wonder there. This really brings the character to life and makes the movie that more enjoyable.

As noted above, I can only assume that more people didn't see Surf’s Up because they'd already seen Happy Feet and thought that this looked similar. Well, it's not. At all. Surf’s Up is one of the best animated films that I've seen in years. The story drags a bit in the middle, but kids will be delighted by the animation and the characters and adults will love the sly humor and the attention to detail. This is definitely one wave that you want to catch.

Surf’s Up doesn't wipe out on DVD courtesy of Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. The film has come to DVD in two separate releases, one full-frame and the other widescreen. For the purposes of this review, only the widescreen version was viewed. The film has been letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image is very sharp and clear, showing very basically no grain and no defects from the source material. We learn from the commentary that what grain we see was added to heighten the documentary look. The colors are superb, as the wide range of tones simply leap off of the screen. The transfer shows no artifacting and no defects from the source material. I can only assume that this transfer was taken directly from a digital source. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The music in the film sounds especially good (not one, but two Green Day songs) and the stereo effects are impressive. The surround sound effects work very well during the surfing competition. I was disappointed by the overall lack of bass here. In the past, I've found family films lacking in subwoofer action, and there's certainly a lack here.

The Surf’s Up DVD contains a range of extras. We start with "The Chubbchubbs Save Xmas", a short which is the sequel to the 2002 Oscar-winning short. This one feels like a movie trailer made by a child with ADD, as the images just fly by. Nowhere near as charming as original. Directors Ash Brannon & Chris Buck and producer Christopher Jenkins provide an AUDIO COMMENTARY for the film in which they talk about the development of the story (and what was changed), the voice actors, and the animation. "Lost Scenes" (8 minutes) gives us four incomplete scenes which are represented by storyboards, or in one instance, video of actors Mindy Sterling and Jane Krakowski performing as two characters who were cut from the film. The four scenes deal with Big Z and the filmmakers thought that they threw the film off balance. "Arnold's Zurfinary" (4 minutes) teaches us surf lingo. We get to watch the actors in action in "All Together Now: Surf’s Up Voice Session" (17 minutes) and it's clear how much fun they are having. "Not a Drop of Real Water" features three featurettes. "Surf Cam" (7 minutes) illustrates the documentary style of the film and shows how a new technology was used to achieve this. "Making Waves" (13 minutes) shows the filmmakers surfing for research and then explores the creation of the digital waves. "Storyboard to Surfboard" takes us through the seven layers of animation to show a completed scene. Mario Cantone and some of the others involved in the film meet two real penguins in "Meet the Penguins" (4 minutes). "Progression Reels" (5 minutes) demonstrate the various elements which go into one animated shot. The extras are rounded out by two GALLERIES, "characters" and "locations" and the MUSIC VIDEO for the song "Lose Myself" by Ms. Lauryn Hill.

Along with the DVD, Surf’s Up is also coming to Blu-ray Disc. For this release, the film is letterboxed at 1.85:1 and the transfer is full 1080p HD and 16 x 9. Put mildly, the image here is stunning. The picture is so sharp and crystal clear that you feel as if you could step into it. The shots of the open ocean have an incredible amount of depth and the jungle scenes show us the slightest amount of detail. As good as the colors looked on the DVD, they look even better here, as they are so deep and true. The image is well-balanced, as it's never too bright or dark, and there's no video noise or artifacting. The disc has an uncompressed PCM 5.1 audio track. This track is very clear and the amount of detail in the stereo separation is excellent. You hear so many more sound effects on this track. The surround sound is very nicely placed. But, as with the DVD, there isn't much bass response. The Blu-ray Disc contains the same extras as the DVD (except for some different set-top games), plus one addition. We get a second AUDIO COMMENTARY, featuring Rob Bredow, visual effects supervisor, David Schaub, animation supervisor, James Williams, layout supervisor. This is a good track, as the three discuss the nuts and bolts of the movie. It gets a bit technical at times, but the enthusiasm which the speakers share for the project is contagious.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long