2007’s Surf’s Up is an often overlooked, though surprisingly unique animated feature. Though penguin movies were all the rage in the mid-to-late 2000s (March of the Penguins, Happy Feet), Surf’s Up managed to differentiate itself from the rest of the lot with a few fun storytelling quirks.
The most obvious of these quirks is that Surf’s Up is presented as a documentary. It seems like a simple change, but it really does add to the film’s sense of freshness, which is all the more apparent now since – in the decade since the film’s release – not many animated features have adopted the “mockumentary” style.
The story centers on Cody Maverick (Shia Labeauf), a macaroni penguin from Antarctica who is entering the tenth annual Big Z Memorial, a surfing competition dedicated to Cody’s hero, surfing legend Big Z.
This contest takes place in the tropical Pen Gu Island, where a documentary crew are filming the competition and interviewing the participants as part of their documentary on Big Z. Among the contestants are Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), a laid-back chicken, and Tank (Diedrich Bader), the muscle-bound penguin who defeated Big Z in his final race. Along the way, Cody befriends not only Chicken Joe, but also a penguin lifeguard named Lani (Zooey Deschanel), and Zeke (Jeff Brides), a surfing guru who becomes Cody’s mentor, and who may or may not actually be Big Z (not-so-spoiler alert, he is).
Admittedly, the plot is nothing to write home about, with an underdog/follow your dreams setup that feels overly familiar in animated films. But the aforementioned mockumentary style, along with its surprisingly relaxed tone, do help it stand on its own two feet. And the characters, while simple, can be entertaining (Chicken Joe often ends up in life-or-death situations, but is completely ignorant to them, and Tank is narcissistic to a comedic level, for the best examples).
Perhaps the film’s biggest highlights are the visuals. Though I feel CG has only more recently captured a more timeless quality, Surf’s Up’s visuals hold up surprisingly well for a 2007 feature (particularly one not made by Pixar). The character designs are all fun and cartoonish, while the backgrounds are still impressively realistic. Between Cody’s home in Antarctica and the tropical islands of Pen Gu, Surf’s Up showcases some breathtakingly beautiful imagery with its settings. And, of course, the animation of the water (particularly the waves) are pretty stunning.
Surf’s Up may not exactly be an animated classic due to its overly familiar plot, and a pretty short running time that robs some of the characters of more screen time (oh, Chicken Joe, we hardly knew thee) But it still makes for an entertaining viewing due to its fun characters, gorgeous visuals and a good dose of originality in its style and tone.
Besides, it’s difficult not to enjoy a movie that features a surfing chicken.