Every so often an unpretentious little charmer like “Surf’s Up” darts ahead of the pack of big, over-hyped, over-long, resistance-is-futile summer blockbusters lumbering into multiplexes. This one is as refreshing as an ice cream cone after a hot day.
The concept does not sound promising — it is yet another penguin story about yet another underdog. But the movie is beguiling, thanks to vibrant visuals, superb voice talent, wit without ironic air quotes or snark, a sweet storyline, and a brisk running time. Like the sport it salutes and the island where it takes place, the movie has a laid-back vibe, taking its story, its humor, and itself lightly.
Cody (voice of Shia LeBeouf of Holes and the upcoming Transformers) is a penguin from Shiverpool, Antarctica who loves to surf and dreams of someday competing like his idol, surf legend Z. Cody gets a chance to go to Hawaii to compete in the Big Z Memorial Surf Off on Pen Gu Island. But it turns out he has a lot to learn about surfing. And he has even more to learn about competition, friendship, and winning.
With the help of fellow surfer Chicken Joe (voice of Napoleon Dynamite‘s Jon Heder), a dry-witted but warm-hearted lifeguard named Lani (voice of Zooey Deschanel), and a reclusive coach with a big secret (voice of Jeff Bridges), Cody takes on the current champ, the trophy-loving Tank (voice of “The Drew Carey Show’s” Diedrich Bader).
It is structured as a documentary, with scratchy black and white “footage” of Z’s early years, characters explaining what is going on to the camera, and understated “mistakes” like protruding boom microphones and drops of ocean water on the lens. This format lends itself to an appealingly non-linear story-telling style, making room for commentary from a colorful range of characters, including the harried Surf Off organizer (voice of James Woods) and three adorable penguin babies who look like fluffballs with beaks.
It has the meticulously hyper-real textures and breathtaking vistas we have come to expect from CGI but clever use of focus and angles and interaction with the “documentary” cameramen make it seem more intimate, less like a bunch of pixels. And voice talent of great warmth and spirit will make audiences feel ready to catch the wave and hang ten.
Parents should know that this movie has some crude schoolyard humor, including potty jokes, a comment about “showering together,” and some implied nudity (nothing shown). Characters use some schoolyard language. There are references to (off-screen) deaths and there is some cartoon-style peril and violence (no one hurt). There are diverse characters, but all of the competitors are male.
Families who see the movie should talk about what was most important to Cody, Z, Tank, Chicken Joe, and Lani and why. What feels best about winning a prize? What are some feelings that are even better? What does it mean to “let the wave do the work?” Families can also talk about some of the coaches or other teachers who taught them the most.
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy surfing classics Step into Liquid (with a real-life surfer from Chicken Joe’s home town of Sheboygan, Wisconsin) and The Endless Summer. They will also enjoy comparing the beautiful computer-generated Hawaiian scenes in this film with the gorgeous hand-painted locations in Lilo & Stitch. They might enjoy the classic Gidgetfilms that helped make surfing popular with teen-agers. They will also enjoy other CGI animated films like Over the Hedge and Robots. And they will enjoy Napoleon Dynamite, featuring two of the voice talents from this movie, Jon Heder and Diedrich Bader.