It sounds awful: a computer-animated surfing penguin movie. Given the recent successes of March of the Penguins and Happy Feet, the concept appears especially opportunistic. But Surf’s Up offers nuanced and energetic penguins, as well as top-notch CGI.
Set up as a mockumentary, the movie focuses on Cody Maverick (voiced by an exceptional Shia LaBeouf), a Rockhopper Penguin and surfing enthusiast living in Antarctica with his competitive brother Glen (Brian Posehn) and accommodating mother Edna (Dana Belben). Fatherless (he was eaten by a predator when the brothers were younger), the family copes daily with loss, mostly by not talking about it.
Headed to the surfing championship at Pangu Island, Cody is the documentary crew’s primary subject, framed by jumpy camerawork (including visible boom microphones), voiceovers, and talking head interviews with friends and family. In his own interviews with the filmmakers (voiced by directors Ash Bannon and Chris Buck), Cody insists that he’s “fine” without his father, though his body language betrays otherwise, as he looks away from his questioners, to the camera, and back again.
As we learn more about Cody, his passion for surfing makes sense. Through grainy “archival” footage, we see him meeting surfing legend and guru Big Z (Jeff Bridges), who came to Cody’s village right around the time his father died. After Big Z gives little Cody a shell necklace with a “Z” emblazoned on it that he never takes off (later it’s revealed that it’s a souvenir shop trinket), he also gave him advice: “Never give up. Find a way.” At the same time, this flashback suggests that Cody’s not the most reliable narrator: he recalls Big Z selecting him from a crowd of penguins, even as we see Cody actually running up to Big Z, literally falling to his feet. At moments like these, the mockumentary style illuminates character while also providing comedy.
But if the penguins are convincing, the plot is less so. Cody too conveniently encounters a new father figure in a set-up not unlike The Karate Kid, from which the film freely cribs. After being humiliated by macho Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader) during an impromptu competition, Cody becomes determined to win the 10th Annual Big Z Memorial Championship, which celebrates the surfing legend who perished in the waves during a similar competition: fragments of Z’s reconstructed surfboard have been erected on a rock, serving as an oddly ominous reminder amongst all the surfing fun.
Worse than Cody’s defeat to Tank is his near-fatal run-in with a fire urchin. Though he’s revived by lifeguard babe Lani (Zooey Deschanel), she’s unsure of how to exactly to treat the urchin sting, and so carries him to her uncle (Jeff Bridges), a reclusive islander and ex-surfer. While on the mend and in Lani’s uncle’s care, Cody embarks on a relationship with him that feels very father-son like. At this point, we want this for Cody as much as he does. The kid has talent; he just needs guidance.
Cody’s interactions with his mentor, though stereotypical for such a film (the trainee thinks he knows it all; the trainer remains wise and stoic), also suggest potent personalities outside of their relationship or even as posturing for any plot that lay ahead. Better still, the mockumentary framework helps to “fill out” the characters, as they reveal self-awareness and self-discoveries through interviews and seemingly “candid” moments.
So, instead of ironic one-liners, we get introspection, even, on occasion, depth. Before long, Cody realizes that Big Z’s hallowed advice — “Never give up. Find a way” — is really just vague, sentimental schlock, a trite motto Big Z dispensed to avoid dealing with difficult situations, like the weight of idolatry from a little boy struggling without his father. Cody learns that real life demands more complexity, and for an animated penguin movie, that’s about as complex as you can get.