Hollywood’s obsession of late with our fine, feathered, flightless friends at the south pole is almost enough to make you wish for the acceleration of global warming so as to eliminate the penguin’s natural habitat and end it all. March of the Penguins was mildly diverting and Happy Feet was fairly successful, combine that with classical comedy stylings of Chilly Willy and wily criminal wrong doings of Batman’s arch-nemesis and you’ve got a definite, life-long pattern. Surf’s Up is entertaining enough and its certainly got a good hook, but penguins… Why does it have to be penguins?
The movie is a kind of documentary about a surfing protégé named Cody Maverick (voice of Shia LaBeouf), who lives in the Antarctic town of Shiverpool (zing!) with his mother and big brother Glen, biding his time till he’s discovered. He ends up in Hawaii and entered in a premier surfing competition, a Memorial tournament in honour of Cody’s hero Big Z (Jeff Bridges). After a huge wipe out, Cody is taken into the jungle where he’s cared for by a lifeguard named Leni (Zoey Deschanel) and her reclusive uncle: Big Z. It turns out Big Z faked his death and gave up surfing for good, but Cody wants to be taught by the best. Naturally, both penguins end up teaching each other a little something about life along the way.
Surf’s Up is pretty standard fair, harmless fun with fortune cookie meditations on looking at life from a top a surfboard while catching a tasty wave. Some cleverness shines through with the fake documentary set-up and clips from the SPEN sports channel and their commentators. Some Green Day tunes, as well as songs from the New Radicals, the Romatics and Sugar Ray set the right tone for a light-hearted surfing movie. The animators keep everything bright and clear and crisp, it’s a happy sort of movie, but it doesn’t break any new ground.
So it’s diverting entertainment for kids both young and old. Unfortunately, not much new ground is covered between the lines and behind the scenes. Cody’s main competitor in the tournament is a feckless bully named Tank that has a do anything to win philosophy and gives female names to all his surfing trophies, fanning coolness while living with his Mom. Cody’s best bud is a chicken named Joe, who rivals Spicoli in terms of dimness, but still manages to end up as the figurehead for a group of native penguins. (And also, that plotline was already done in Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style.) Originality in cartoons has always been problematic but Surf’s Up was already facing a deficit by being about penguins in the first place.