Sunday, December 20, 2015

Surfin' Bird

Film: Surf’s Up
Format: DVD from Sycamore Public Library on laptop.

My local public library is undergoing a massive expansion and renovation. It’s close for the next month, which means that a couple of movies I had ordered through interlibrary loan were instead shunted to the public library one town over. When I went to pick them up, I discovered that I have the ability to check out anything from that library using my regular library card. Well, it was a nice surprise, as was finding Surf’s Up, the last nominee for Best Animated Feature I had left to watch…at least until the next Oscar nominations are announced.

In a more perfect world, I’d have left Song of the Sea until the end so that I could wrap up this category on a high note. Instead, I’m wrapping it up not on a sour one, but on a mediocre one. Surf’s Up isn’t a bad movie; it’s just a movie I’ve seen before. This is, beat for beat, the same thing as Cars except with surfing penguins instead of with NASCAR vehicles. It’s as if Sony took the money-making potential of the previous year’s Pixar film (the aforementioned Cars) and combined it with the previous year’s Best Animated Feature winner (dancing penguin extravaganza Happy Feet) in a quest for the best of both worlds.

The one really interesting element is that Surf’s Up is filmed at least in part as a documentary being made about a surfing competition called the Big Z Memorial. Hopeful penguin Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) has dreamed of surfing competitions his whole life, much to the frustration of his mother (Dana Belben) and older brother (Brian Posehn). Cody met surfing legend “Big Z” Topanga when he was a child. Big Z eventually died in a surfing accident at the tournament that now bears his name. Even though his family isn’t really keen on his surfing dreams, Cody manages to arrange an invite to the 10th annual tournament despite the reservations of talent scout Mikey (Mario Cantone).

En route to the competition, Cody befriends another competitor, Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), an actual chicken from Sheboygan, WI. Once they reach Pen Gu Island, the site of the competition, Cody immediately falls for penguin lifeguard Lani (Zooey Deschanel) and runs afoul of nine-time champion Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader). Promoter/Don King knock-off Reggie Belafonte (James Woods) tries to create a rivalry between the two which is soon over when Cody wipes out and needs to be rescued by Lani. She takes him to her uncle Geek (Jeff Bridges), who is, of course, Big Z himself in hiding.

At this point, you know everything you need to know if you’ve see Cars. The substitution works like this:
Young, brash hopeful in over his head: Cody Maverick/Lightning McQueen
Love interest for the main character: Lani/Sally
Wacky sidekick: Chicken Joe/Mater
Old mentor in hiding, desperate to keep his anonymity: Big Z/Doc Hudson
Bad guy who is really good at the sport: Tank/Chick Hicks

Knowing all of that, it’s not too difficult to fill in the rest of the blanks yourself. Cody has to learn not just how to surf but the meaning of surfing to really become able to compete. And, of course, it all comes down to a face-off between three competitors at the end, a trio that naturally includes both the up-and-coming hero of our tale and the bad guy who has proven himself to be a jerk through the entire film. There are only a couple of ways this can end, and the ending we get is just a notch different from the one we get in Cars.

If this sounds like I didn’t like Surf’s Up, it’s partially right. I didn’t hate this film; I was just really disappointed in it. There’s a lot of really good voice talent here that’s squandered on a retreaded story that’s been told better before. The idea of having the actual directors doing voicework in the movie as members of the documentary film crew is a great choice, for instance, and this documentary style allows for a few good jokes and some nice set-ups throughout.

But I can’t really get over the fact that story-wise, this seems like a direct rip-off of Pixar’s film from the year before. It goes to some very obvious places instead of really trying to do anything new. Ultimately, I probably like this more than I’m letting on here, but it’s really hard for me to say a lot positive here when I knew pretty much exactly where we were going 10 minutes in beat by beat and plot point by plot point.

Why to watch Surf’s Up: The documentary style is an interesting choice.
Why not to watch: It was better when it was called Cars, and Cars was better when it was called Doc Hollywood.


  1. I liked this movie well enough, but it's not one I've ever felt the urge to watch again.

    I've seen Inside Out, Minions, and The Peanuts Movie among the probable 2015 nominees. I'm guessing The Good Dinosaur, The Little Prince, Shaun the Sheep Movie, and Anomalisa are other potential picks, none of which I have seen yet.

    1. My thinking is that Inside Out is a lock for a nominee, and The Good Dinosaur is likely since it's Pixar (but no guarantees). Based on critical acclaim, The Peanuts Movie is very likely.

      I don't really have any other opinions on the potential nominees. We'll know in a few weeks anyway.