Surf's Up (UK - BD)
Scott McKenzie likes CG penguins but asks when originality left the building...
Cody Maverick is a young penguin who lives to surf. He finds his life in Shiverpool, Antarctica dull and nothing makes him happier than taking to the waves, even though his family can’t understand the attraction. When a scout for a surfing competition visits his home town, he takes the opportunity to leave his monotonous life behind and compete in his favourite sport at Pen Gu Island, which was home to his hero, Big Z. Upon his arrival he is humiliated by the evil champion Tank Evans and must rebuild his confidence with his new friends Chicken Joe and a mysterious penguin named Geek.
I remember seeing the trailer for Surf’s Up a long time before it hit the cinema screens and thought ‘Oh no, not another bloody penguin movie’. Maybe it came along at the end of a run of penguin movies as a pure coincidence, but with March of the Penguins, Happy Feet and Farce of the Penguins already testing audiences’ appetite for the feathered fish-eaters, do we really need another one? I’m too old to be a member of the target audience and I’m sure I’m reading too much into this movie, but penguins couldn’t survive on a tropical island. Any animal on earth that lives in warm climates could have been used (surfing iguanas, anyone?) so the use of penguins seems very cynical to me.
My wildlife concerns aside, Surf’s Up does try to make a different type of movie for kids by selling this as a mockumentary rather than a straight sports movie. Most impressive is the way it has been constructed, looking like it has been filmed with handheld cameras, including interviews and damaged ‘archive’ footage. The problem here is that the documentary style isn’t used all the way through. To keep the story moving along with key scenes that wouldn’t have worked if the characters on screen thought someone was watching, the style reverts to what you would expect an animated movie to look like. This will probably go unnoticed by younger viewers but for me it felt like a film of two halves.
The originality ends there though. The story of a talented young hothead learning to control his emotions on the way to glory and redemption for his grizzled mentor is a tried-and-tested formula and movies of this ilk tend to follow a certain structure. Surf’s Up is no different and key scenes could be mapped against the storyline of many other sports movies. The Color of Money immediately springs to mind for me, but I’m sure that anyone of a certain age could draw parallels between Surf’s Up and their favourite sports movie. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because this is likely to be the first sports movie a certain groups of kids watch, so it will then become their frame of reference for the genre in the future.
Where Surf’s Up impresses is unsurprisingly in the animation stakes. As anyone with a slight interest in CGI knows, water is one of the most difficult objects to animate and I’m pleased to say that the waves look incredible. Not only is the detail in the surf very realistic, the fact that it isn’t live action allows the filmmakers to put the camera anywhere they want and get the takes they storyboarded in one take rather than filming hundreds of shots on surfboard-mounted cameras. The surfing scenes are undoubtedly the most enjoyable of all and make it easier to overlook the unoriginality of the scenes that join them together.
The second aspect of Surf’s Up I liked was the dialogue. Rather than force the stars to adhere to a strict screenplay, they were allowed to improvise in the studio and the characters were then animated around them. This means there is an air of spontaneity in the interactions between the characters and it's obvious that Shia Laboeuf, Jon Heder and Jeff Bridges were all having a great time bouncing off each other. I believe younger viewers will draw more enjoyment from Surf’s Up than an older audience that is familiar with the structure, but there’s still just enough good points for me to give it a thumbs up overall.
Surf’s Up is presented in 1.85:1 (1080p) so my recommendation is that if this is your kind of movie, make sure you watch it on the biggest screen you can find. The vibrant colours and attention to detail make the movie all the more enjoyable, in particular little touches like splashes of water on the ‘camera’ to make the documentary style more realistic. The digital transfer means that the picture hasn’t picked up any imperfections and I couldn’t find any problems with compression or edge enhancement. There is grain and scratches in the picture, but only where they have purposely been added during post-production and I’m confident this is an excellent reproduction of the intended look of the movie.
Given that this movie will mostly be watched by kids (on DVD rather than Blu-ray for that matter), Sony Pictures didn’t exactly need to put a lot of effort into the audio options but I’m pleased to say they’ve included a Dolby TrueHD track, along with an audio descriptive option. As with the video quality, everything that was supposed to be in the mix is here at the appropriate levels. Music, effects and dialogue are all pitch-perfect and free from interference. While I drew most enjoyment from the cool surf guitar music when the action moves to Pen Gu island, I thought there was generally slightly less to impress in the audio than there is in the detail of the picture.
This disc comes pretty well-loaded, starting off with not one but two audio commentary tracks. The first from the directors and the producer focuses on their decision to make the movie in a documentary style because that’s usually how surf movies are made and the fun they had allowing their voice actors to improvise their lines. The second commentary is from the visual effects coordinators and is more technical, describing how the action is constructed in layers and the work that went into creating the digital characters. Next up we have four Lost (i.e. deleted) Scenes that come with optional introductions from the directors and producer. The scenes haven’t been animated but the voices work well with the storyboards.
‘L’il Chris Live from the Blue Carpet’ kicks off the kid-friendly extra features with some British lad who sings a song on the soundtrack interviewing the stars at the premiere. This is followed by five featurettes, which are all introduced by L’il Chris and focus on how to talk like a surfer, tips on surfing from the pros, behind the scenes footage of voice recording sessions, construction of the digital scenes and for some reason three minutes about two real penguins that attend the premiere. ‘Progression Reels’ is another featurette that shows how the digital scenes were put together by showing the effects as they were added layer by layer.
We then head into filler territory with galleries of concept drawings of characters and locations. Trailers for Daddy Day Camp, Open Season and Monster House are also included, along with a Lauryn Hill music video that consists of nothing more than key scenes from the movie edited together. The most welcome filler on the disc are two animated shorts called The Chubbchubbs and The Chubbchubbs Save Xmas, the first of which won the Best Animated Short Oscar in 2003. Both are great fun for kids and adults alike, with plenty of sly nods to Star Wars, Aliens and ET.
What Surf’s Up lacks in the originality of its storyline and choice of feathered characters it just about makes up for in the attention to detail in the digital animation and the performances of its voice actors. It doesn’t try to please older audiences as much as the Shrek movies, but I don’t consider that a bad thing, it just means that mum and dad won’t want to join in after a while if junior leaves the disc permanently in the player. The movie looks amazing and sounds pretty good as well and there’s certainly a wide array of extras so fans of the movie should definitely consider picking up this release.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray release.
Review by Scott McKenzie
General viewing, but some scenes may be unsuitable for young children
Release Date: 10th December 2007
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English, Audio Descriptive English
Subtitles: English, Hindi
Extras: Filmmakers Commentary, Visual Effects Commentary, Lost Scenes, L'il Chris Live From The Blue Carpet, 5 Featurettes, Progression Reels, Galleries, Trailers, Music Video
Easter Egg: No
Director: Ash Brannon, Chris Buck
Cast: Shia LaBoeuf, Jeff Bridges, Zooey Deschanel, John Heder, James Woods
Genre: Animation, Comedy and Sport
Length: 82 minutes
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