Penguins are the new dogs. Not since the heyday of dog movies like Benji and Lassie has one species won over the hearts of so many. March of the Penguins was a left field hit a year or so ago and an R-rated parody of that movie, Farce of the Penguins, soon followed. The little furry birds have recently appeared in Happy Feet, Madagascar, the 3-2-1 Penguins series and even something called Penguins Behind Bars. Everybody loves penguins, but will they love penguins who surf? Disturbia star Shia LaBeouf is counting on it.
LeBeouf provides the voice for Cody Maverick, a young penguin who idolizes legendary surfer Big Z. When he is scouted to compete in the Big Z Memorial Surf Off he soon comes up against stiff competition in the form of Tank Evans, the surfing champion who beat Big Z, and forced him into taking his last, fatal ride on a surfboard.
After Cody takes a nasty spill he is rescued by lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel) who introduces him to Zeke (real life surfer Jeff Bridges doing his best Big Lebowski routine). Turns out Zeke isn’t just a washed-up old surfer, he also has valuable life lessons— “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey,” and “Winning isn’t everything,”—for his young protégé.
On the surface Surf’s Up doesn’t seem to offer much we haven’t seen before. There’s animated penguins, goofy sidekicks and lots of poop jokes, but Surf’s Up is a cut above the rest.
First of all is the style of the film. Instead of the usual animated movie approach, which is often the standard wide shot, close up, television framing, Surf’s Up takes it’s inspiration from documentary films and reality television. Jittery camera work is mixed with the usual documentary clichés—talking head interviews, confessionals and historical footage—to tell the story.
Imagine Dogtown and Z Boys and The Real World with penguins and you get the idea. It’s a simple, but effective trick and it separates Surf’s Up from the rest of the animated pack.
Kids might not get all the jokes—many are clearly aimed at mom and dad—but they will certainly love the surfing sequences, the jokes they understand and the penguins.
If this movie does well—and it deserves to—expect to see penguins in absolutely everything next year. Indiana Jones and the Dancing Penguins anyone?