Surf's Up

Surf's Up

***1/2

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Reality television is everywhere these days. Even animated characters can't get away from it. Cody Maverick is a surly young penguin stuck in the dead end town of Shiverpool, Antarctica, where he dreams of being a surfing star like his long lost hero, Big Z. The film crew documenting his life get a lucky break when Cody has the opportunity to ride a whale to Hawaii, there to participate in the avian world's most important annual event.

Seduced by the happy go lucky atmosphere and the glamour of appearances on the Sports Penguin Entertainment Network (SPEN), Cody is having the time of his life - until a hopeless contest against reigning champion and inveterate bully Tank Evans makes him realise he was only ever there for people to laugh at. When he obtains the support of a mysterious stranger, it's time for Cody to learn what training really means, to come to terms with the loss of his father, and to figure out just what it is that he's doing it all for.

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Surf's Up has a twee, overfamiliar story, but that's not a particular problem, as it's fresh enough to the children who are its primary audience, and it tells its tale fairly well. Man of the moment Shia LaBeouf gives Cody lots of character, making him into a complicated hero who isn't always easy to like but who is both believable and interesting to watch. He's well matched by Jeff Bridges' laconic clam-eating jungle bum. The animation which has gone into these characters is magnificent, giving them lots of subtle facial expressions and body language. Even the background characters, including those who don't get speaking roles, are all distinct individuals.

But what really impresses in this film is the animated water. Much of the time one really has the impression that one is watching cartoon characters immersed in real water. All the complex swirls and eddies created by waves and surfboards are perfectly calculated, so that nothing ever looks out of place. The shifts in light as one moves downwards through the water, the patterns of sunbeams across its surface, even the humidity in the air - everything looks real. Of course, the genius of this will probably be lost on young viewers, but for adults of a technical bent it's reason enough to watch the film in itself.

Although its hero is a little older than most of its audience will be, Surf's Up has several other characters to appeal to viewers of all ages. The perpetually stoned Chicken Joe who becomes Cody's loyal friend is particularly endearing, whilst Zooey Deschanel makes a bold effort with a underwritten role as Lani, the lifeguard who steals our hero's heart. The little red squid float she carries with her everywhere exemplifies the vein of more sophisticated, sometimes quite dark humour that runs throughout.

Occasionally we are reminded of the presence of the documentary crew when a new character asks who they are or their microphone inadvertently gets into shot. There are also plenty of jokes at the expense of sports television which underscore the film's central point: it's not the winning, it's the taking part that counts. Surf's Up won't win any prizes for best kids' film ever, but it's certainly one of this summer's best, and kids will find it lots of fun whether they're interested in surfing or not.

Reviewed on: 07 Aug 2007
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Surf's Up packshot
A lonely young penguin pursues his dream of becoming the world's greatest surfer.
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Director: Ash Brannon, Chris Buck

Writer: Lisa Addario, Christian Darren

Starring: The voices of Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder, James Woods, Diedrich Bader

Year: 2007

Runtime: 85 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US

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