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Surf's Up Print E-mail
Friday, 01 February 2008
Image“Surf’s Up” can almost be broken into two films. The first half focuses more on Cody (Shia LaBeouf) and his trials and tribulations of becoming a surfer. The documentary feel of really hits its stride here (despite being in computer animation), but that’s not necessarily a good thing. Too much dialogue and the events are shaped by real documentaries, some of them about surfers or other sports people, and the detailed attention to those almost sucks the fun right out of the film. If you turned off the video and listened only to the audio, you’d imagine people instead of animated penguins. The material is redundant at this point, though it is certainly realistic.

The turning point in Cody’s young life was the surprise visit from Big Z (Jeff Bridges), the most famous and successful surfer in the world. Big Z rides in on a wave, stays a few days to let the locals gawk over him, leaves Cody with a Big Z necklace – his initial carved on a clamshell – and tells him to find his own wave through life. Inspired, Cody determines to be a surfer.

The stylistic touch quickly reveals itself in the dated “film” of past events in Cody’s life and in the surfing world. The visual effects are scratchy and washed out, like you would expect them to be on home movies or period film. If it weren’t for the visual humor in the pieces, I would have stopped watching about fifteen minutes into the film because it was too realistic. The whining, stubborn, misunderstood underdog dialogue was a real turn-off because it wasn’t funny.
However, the visuals that accompanied them were just often enough to keep me hooked. One that comes immediately to mind is when Cody is talking about his dad’s death. The audience sees a picture of a penguin about to get eaten by an orca that’s just broken through the ice.

The initial arc in the first half feels ham-handed in terms of the script. Everything moves to get Cody out of Antarctica and on his way to the tropical surfing championship. There is a brief bit of excitement when he misses the transport ship (a whale, turning out to be a great setup to introduce how lost Chicken Joe – Jon Heder – is) and has to swim for it. The action is great, and the laughs start coming.

However, the second arc falls apart as well. Where the first was too much like a real documentary, the second half has got “underdog, come-from-behind-to-snatch-victory-from-the-jaws-of-defeat” written all over it. Chicken Joe’s search for Cody after he ran away is hilarious, although it too telegraphs many of the scenes and jokes.

The second half is more palatable, though. The voice actors gel and make the story and humor happen. One of the interesting things is that the conversations between characters seems real, not just bits and pieces recorded separately and mixed in later. The biggest part of that is because, in a rare occurrence, the voice actors worked together on the same sound stage and had permission to adlib all they wanted to as long as they stayed within their characters. The behind-the-scenes featurette included in the special features of the disc features sessions where most of the actors worked together during scenes. The gestalt they got by working this way shows up in the finished product and makes everything seem more real.

The visual humor is an absolute treat. Even when the main characters take center stage, there’s always something going on in the background of the scene. Probably the most amazing part of this movie is that the animation looks like it was actually “filmed” by a handheld camera. That’s because it was. Another featurette included on the disc shows how all of that was accomplished. This was the first time anything like this had been attempted in an animated film. The cameramen and directors had to create a special camera as well as new computer programming to show off their “handheld” camera shots.

This handheld version of the movie showcases the high-def presentation of the Blu-ray disc. The colors are simply amazing, and the action is as clear as it can be. I enjoyed the wide sweeping view and the use of the different angles.

The sound offered in the movie is great. It allows you to really show off that surround sound system. Several existing hit songs are included in the movie, though there are some that play only for a short time. That’s because the artists didn’t redo the original songs so they wouldn’t be found objectionable.

I’m fast becoming a Shia LaBeouf fan. He can do it all, from romance to kids action movies. His portrayal of Cody Maverick is dead on, and he plays off the other characters beautifully.

Jeff Bridges still remains one of my favorite actors. He’s not flashy or angst-driven, and he seems more at home playing oddball characters. His portrayal of Starman in the movie of the same name was amazing, and I’ll never forget him as the Big Lebowski. He brings a lot of that talent for the offbeat when he plays Big Z. With Bridges at the helm, Big Z is a loveable ne’er-do-well who lives in his own zip code.

Zooey Deschanel plays Lani, the beach lifeguard and Cody’s major crush. Her voice acting is perfect for the role. Bubbling laughter is a natural sound for her, and it fits Lani perfectly. Watching her in the sound room with Shia, Jon, and Jeff is great.

Jon Heder steals the show so many times as Chicken Joe that it’s amazing. His character will have kids – and probably adults – in stitches throughout. There’s an honest wonderment about the character that Heder easily captures.

One of the actors I didn’t get to see in the voice recording sessions was James Woods. He played the voice of Reggie Belafonte. I’ve watched Woods for years but have never experienced him in a role like this. It was interesting hearing his voice, saying the lines he was saying, then remembering all the great dramatic roles he’s had over the years. The experience really jarred and felt surreal.

Diedrich Bader lends his voice to Tank, the new surfer on the block who put an end to Big Z’s career ten years ago. Bader fits the role perfectly because he can bring a quirky character to life almost by simply drawing a breath.

The special features included on the disc are many. All of them are worth taking a look at, but the ones I found most enjoyable and informative were the ones regarding the technical aspects of making the film. Animated features would seem to offer more control to a director, but as they ramp up in tech, that’s not as true any more. With the way things are going, it won’t be long before characters in animated films are so well articulated and created that it will be hard to tell digital characters from real ones.

“Surf’s Up” is an interesting film to watch. It’s one that most kids will sit down and watch, probably repeatedly, because Chicken Joe is a hoot. It’s not a bad way to spend time with the kids because there’s enough in the story to keep adults interested as well.

This is one of the Best Animated Feature Oscar nominees for 2007.

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