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Movie Review: Surf’s Up

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I am tired of penguins. There, I said it. I know this is only the third in the span of a couple of years, but I am sick and tired of these penguin movies. I thought March of the Penguins was fantastic. I saw Happy Feet and fell in love again. Then the trailers for Surf's Up hit; It was just too much.

I just did not have any interest in seeing it, too many penguins. I did not want to see penguins and I did not want to see penguins surfing. I have nothing against the filmmakers, I just had no interest. So, how did I find myself in the theater actually watching? I do not know, but I did, and I found that I was glad that I did.

Surf's Up is the tale of a young penguin, Cody Maverick (Shia Lebeouf) who wants to be a top surfer. He grew up idolizing Big Z (Jeff Bridges), a legendary surfer who had visited his town when he was but a child. Young Cody dreams of following in Z's footsteps, even when no one else supports him. While everyone thought he was crazy, or lazy, he never let go of his dream.

One day, he is visited by a talent scout looking for the next big thing in surfing, and finds Cody. Cody is ecstatic. He sets off to enter a big tournament, on the tropical island of Pen Gu, in honor of the late Big Z.

It is at the island where he runs into some heavy opposition in the form of current champ, Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader). Tank is an egocentric, mean hearted character who only cares about winning. A run in with him leads to the lifeguard, and love interest, Lani (Zooey Deschanel), rescuing him and taking into the jungle to recuperate. There he meets Geek, a heavy set loner penguin who knows a thing or two about surfing.

The story is nothing new, it follows the whole moral of "winning isn't everthing" and the power of friendship, you know, the sort of stuff that is the fodder for family movies year round. Surprisingly, it just works really well. The script develops at an even pace, they don't try to jam every minute with jokes, so while it isn't an absolute laugh riot, the characters are given time to develop at a nice pace. It actually has characters, a number of good ones, which is a big surprise in and of itself.

What really helps it stand apart is the documentary style that is employed for good portions of the movie. It adds another layer of interest to what could have been completely run of the mill. The movie is framed as a documentary chronicling Cody's surfing aspirations, and follows him on his journey to Pen Gu. It isn't used for the entire movie, whether by design, or by forgetfulness, and those moments step back towards the ordinary, but the screenwriting saves the day giving us characters that are actually interesting have genuine interactions.

The animation is also quite good, with some great water effects and nice texturing. The only problem is that animation quality has been increasing all around, and we cannot rely on quality animation to carry us through. Which is why I am glad that this movie, that I had no interest in seeing, had nicely developed characters.

Bottomline. Surprisingly good, surprisingly satisfying animated film. The story tells a tried and true tale. It has good characters, nice animation, and is fun. It also benefits from not having heaps of expectations piled on. It has a loose, free-flowing feel to it that makes it fun. This is, believe it or not, worth making a trip to see.


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