The passionate pursuit of the perfect wave once inspired Bruce Brown to film the quintessential surfing documentary The Endless Summer. A loving ode to the unheralded beach-bum community, Brown's rambling tour of our planet's surfing hot spots took audiences on a permanent vacation when it opened in 1966.
Forty years later, the art of mastering tubular waves has inspired Surf's Up, an animated fish-out-of-water story that opens in the summer (great) but feels endless (groan).
Using penguins as protagonists (yet again), Surf's Up traces a fictional timeline of surfing accomplishments that places serious emphasis on Big Z (Jeff Bridges). A dominant wave-runner, the Zen penguin mysteriously dropped off the competitive-surfing scene during a heated match with his arch-rival Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader). Now potential heirs to Z's throne are heading to Hawaii for an open competition.
The unlikeliest of champions is Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf), the best -- make that only -- surfing penguin in the frozen Antarctic community of Shiverpool. Leaving his ungrateful family in his wake, Cody hitches a ride to warmer climates to follow in the fin-strokes of his idol Z, but encounters incessant obstacles that threaten to sink his surfing dreams.
Co-directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck, veterans of Pixar and Disney respectively, make two wise decisions. They cast Bridges as Z so the California golden boy can tap into the cares-to-the-wind vibe he brought to The Big Lebowski. It's unlikely the Coen brothers would ever film a sequel to their 1998 cult classic, so this might be the closest we'll get to seeing Bridges' iconic Dude -- albeit in penguin form -- again.
Surf's Up also is the first animated feature (so far as I can recall) to adopt a documentary-style approach, a move that automatically freshens up the script's familiar underdog-makes-good material. Characters give interviews to an unseen film crew -- Brannon and Buck occasionally are heard off screen asking questions. It's clever, and the movie takes the format about as far as it will go.
The rest of Surf's Up is as flat as the ocean on a calm day. Musical cues that transition scenes are horribly moldy and painfully obvious. The familiar riff of Green Day's 1994 hit "Welcome to Paradise" kicks in once Cody reaches the beach. What, Guns 'N' Roses wouldn't give up the rights to "Paradise City?"
The rest of the vocal casting is equally predictable. Jon Heder mildly tweaks his Napoleon Dynamite persona to voice Cody's unlikely friend, a spaced-out chicken with surfing chops of his own. James Woods rapid-fires lame dialogue as Reggie Belafonte, a beaver (I think) working as a gun-for-hire surf promoter with Don King's bravado and trademark spiky coif. And a lackluster line reading by LaBeouf makes his character, Cody Maverick, anything but.
Maybe I'm just burned out on black-and-white birds after waddling through March of the Penguins and the musical Happy Feet? Familiarity for the breed seems to have bred contempt for this movie. But even if Surf's Up built its act around orangutan, I still would have been turned off by the screenplay's tasteless humor. For a kid's movie, this one pushes the obscenity envelope. Flatulence jokes muscle out semi-offensive language -- no blatant curses make their way into the film, but you wouldn't want your youngest repeating some of the phrases fed-up Cody uses when he's frustrated. Another scene, in which Cody injures himself on an underwater urchin, ends with a physician urinating on the penguin's open wound. The final insult occurs when Tank is caught by his mom while in the act of "polishing his trophies." Classy, right? Sadly, Cody's search for his inner dude has produced a dud.
Don King presents his first animated film.