Penguin lovers, rejoice. After starring in one of the highest-grossing documentaries of all time (March of the Penguins), stealing the show from a jungle full of their fellow animals (Madagascar) and saving the world through song and dance (Happy Feet), your favorite flightless fowl have returned in what just might be one of the more innovative animated films to grace the multiplex in recent years.

The central gag of Surf's Up is not simply that it is about penguins that surf, but also a mockumentary about penguins who surf. This is not the first computer-animated cartoon to feature clapboards, boom mics that drop into the frame, and characters who press their faces against non-existent camera lenses; those tricks go back at least as far as the closing credits of A Bug's Life. And this is not the first animated film to feature journalistic, on-camera interviews with animals; that gimmick goes back at least as far as Nick Park's 1989 short Creature Comforts. However, this just might be the first film to carry all these ideas through an entire movie.

Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LeBeouf) is one hip dude

Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LeBeouf) is one hip dude

The story concerns a small penguin with big dreams going by the name of Cody Maverick (voice of Shia LaBeouf). Cody lives in Shiverpool, a penguin community somewhere in the Antarctic where he spends his days stacking fish. Because he was a runt when he popped out of the egg, he is something of a social misfit in penguin society, and his family life could be better, too: his mother pities him, his big (much bigger) brother mocks him, and his father was taken years ago by a killer whale.

But Cody has a dream. Years ago, a penguin surfing champ by the name of Big Z visited his community, gave him a medal, and told him to find his own path and never give up. So Cody has taken up surfing with a passion, and as the documentary crew begins to chronicle his story, Cody hopes to compete in the championships.

Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) and Cody hit the beach

Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) and Cody hit the beach

The documentary approach allows the filmmakers to play around with time and film formats, just like real documentaries do. Scenes depicting the history of penguin surfing are doctored to resemble the faded, scratchy footage that we have seen in recent surfing documentaries like Step Into Liquid and Rising Giants. When Cody arrives at the 10th Annual Big Z Memorial Surf-Off—so named because Big Z was lost to a giant wave several years ago—we see surfer penguins (real-life surfers Kelly Slater and Rob Machado) comment on the proceedings for sports TV.

Thus, when Cody wipes out badly after riding his first big wave, the filmmakers flash back to an interview he gave back at home, in which he confidently predicted that his first big wave would be an awesome success and something you'd want to watch "over and over." And so the film shows Cody wiping out—again and again, from multiple angles, all apparently thanks to the magic of "instant replay". Like most mockumentaries, the film cheats a bit by showing you things that no documentary crew could possibly have captured, at least not without dramatic re-enactments. After seeing Cody wipe out from a distance, we see him up close, as humour turns to terror and the giant wave throws him down to the sea floor.

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Lani (Zooey Deschanel) and Cody catch some waves

Lani (Zooey Deschanel) and Cody catch some waves

Seeing that Cody is injured, a lifeguard named Lani (Zooey Deschanel) takes him to her uncle Geek (Jeff Bridges), a recluse who lives deep in the forest and never comes to the beach. It gives nothing away to say that Geek, after his initial reluctance to help an outsider, ends up becoming a mentor to Cody, and helps him to prepare for his return to the competition. Meanwhile, Cody's new friend Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) wonders what has happened to Cody, so he goes off on a quest into the forest.

Directed by Ash Brannon (a co-director on Toy Story 2) and Chris Buck (a director on Disney's Tarzan) from a screenplay credited to them and three other writers, Surf's Up is somewhat typical for a CGI cartoon. Like many of them, it features roller-coaster rides down dangerous slopes and through twisty tunnels. And there are a few mildly rude bits—at least some of which are justified by the animals-will-be-animals setting of the story. One scene, in which a guy urinates on another's foot after getting stung by a fire urchin, is even almost educational. (Almost.)

Pro surfers Rob Machado and Kelly Slater as, er, themselves

Pro surfers Rob Machado and Kelly Slater as, er, themselves

After a strong start, the film loses some of its steam as it settles into an all-too-familiar narrative pattern, with trainer and trainee teaching each other important and valuable life lessons, and so on. Lani even seems to break up with Cody just before the big race—not that they were really together to begin with—simply because that's how you add dramatic tension to a movie's climactic reel.

But it's still an enjoyable experience overall, and the themes the film explores are subtly complex, in a way that could be fun for parents and kids to discuss after they have seen the movie. (See below for a few examples.) Thankfully, even though Surf's Up is clearly patterned after a particular kind of pop documentary, it does not fall prey to the temptation to pile on the pop-culture references, like so many other cartoons do these days. And the crashing waves are a wonder to behold.

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It may not be the best of the recent flock of penguin movies, but Surf's Up proves those creatures still have a few cinematic tricks up their sleeves.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. A recurring theme in this film is that people should "find their way" and "never give up". So what would you say to someone who says, as Geek says to Cody, "I'm giving up. That's my way"? What does it mean when Geek says, later on, that he was "lost for a little while" until Cody "pointed the way back"?
  2. How do we balance our own "ways", which we create ourselves, with "the way" which we ought to follow?
  3. What does the film say about winning? Losing? Giving up? Does Cody "give up" in the end? Does he "win" in the end? What about Geek?
  4. What does the film say about families and communities? Does anyone in Cody's family or community support him? How different do you think Cody's life would be if he had a father? How does Geek become like a father to him?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Surf's Up is rated PG for mild language (nothing stronger than "sucks" and "oh my gosh") and some rude humor, including references to passing gas, bug poop, and a guy urinating on another guy's foot (just off-camera) after getting stung by a fire urchin. When Cody and Lani wash the bug poop off in a waterfall, Cody jokes that they are "in the shower together". A character's groin is digitally blurred when he gets out of a hot tub on a TV show. A tribe of forest penguins attacks the "filmmakers" and captures Chicken Joe, putting him in a cauldron—he's so dim, he thinks he's in a hot tub. There are also humorous references to off-screen deaths: we see a still photo of the killer whale that killed Cody's father, and we see a "six-piece combo" bucket of chicken that we are told contains Chicken Joe's father.

What other Christian critics are saying:

Surf's Up
Our Rating
3 Stars - Good
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG (for mild language and some rude humor)
Directed By
Ash Brannon, Chris Buck
Run Time
1 hour 25 minutes
Shia LaBeouf, Zooey Deschanel, Jon Heder
Theatre Release
June 08, 2007 by Sony Pictures
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