While the world didn’t need another animal-based, CG animated movie (especially one involving penguins), Surf’s Up's approach to the genre makes it worth its own. Taking a Christopher Guest-style documentary approach, this look at surfing penguins is a beautifully animated movie with plenty of humor spread throughout.
While the story hits the typical animation pitfalls to ensure kids get the important messages, the jokes, sight gags, and puns are wide reaching in their appeal. It’s on the Pixar level of writing at times, no surprise given the co-directors (Ash Brannon and Chris Buck) have Pixar or Disney on their resumes.
The style of interviewing and telling the story of a determined penguin surfer Cody Maverick through a shaky cam goes off well. The story is interwoven with the tale of a lost surfer named simply Big Z during the build-up to a major surfing competition. “Archival” footage is used to shows Z’s career, complete with faded, scratchy video that sells the documentary concept.
While the style carries much of the movie, it loses this edge when it comes to action. The surfing scenes use a number of believable cameras and styles, while other scenes weave around the screen unnaturally to keep the younger set excited. It takes away from an otherwise brilliant presentation.
Surf’s Up was seemingly ignored on release, likely due to the influx of animated penguins, which is a shame. This is infinitely more enjoyable than Happy Feet which sold itself on cuteness instead of style. Surf’s Up is imaginative, funny, and constantly enjoyable.
Filtered with an artificial grain to give it a more natural film look, the disc lacks the sharpness and clarity many would associate with CG animated films. It has a fuzzy, soft look to it that diminishes detail, which could also be intentional. Things such as feathers and fur are still noticeable, and some shots of the water are simply beautiful. The lack of crispness visible in something like Cars doesn’t detract from the quality of visuals here.
Splashing water and heavy waves make for spectacular audio. Slight movement of water leads to consistent surround use, and when the massive wall of water comes crashing down, the thick bass leads to a heavy, room-shaking experience. Where the disc lacks subtlety in the jungle scenes (no wildlife sounds at all), it makes up for it when the penguins hit the water.
Extras begin with the ChubbChubbs, a hysterical short that is followed up by its lesser sequel, ChubbChubbs Save Christmas. Three deleted scenes (and one that is done as a voice recording session) offer introductions by the filmmakers, and are presented as sketches for eight minutes. Four brief featurettes focus on the voice actors, the penguins, and another handles how the water was done.
Two commentaries follow, one with the filmmakers, the other with the visual effects team. Choosing one depends on what you’re more interested in, the technical or story challenges. Progression reels show how the scenes came together; galleries offer snippets of characters or locations, and a music video by Lauryn Hill nearly bring us to the end. Some trailers and a fun little pinball game mark the finish line.
Wondering which prior efforts the directors worked on? Ash Brannon directed Toy Story 2 and handled animation on that one, Toy Story, and A Bug’s Life. Chris Buck had a hand in numerous Disney efforts in the animation department (Chicken Little, Little Mermaid) and directed Tarzan.