The Quarantine Stream: 'Surf's Up' is a Radical Wave of Animated Mockumentary Comedy
(Welcome to The Quarantine Stream, a new series where the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching while social distancing during the COVID-19 pandemic.)
The Movie: Surf’s Up
Where You Can Stream It: Netflix
The Pitch: Cody, a Rockhopper penguin, journeys from his home in Shiverpool, Antarctica, to take part in the Big Z Memorial Surf-Off on beautiful Pen Gu Island. Young Cody is determined to win the most important competition in the world of penguin surfing in honor of “Big Z,” a deceased surfing legend whom he has idolized since childhood. But the waves in Pen Gu are different than in Shiverpool, and the competition is steep. The current champ, egotistical Tank Evans, isn’t just about to let this little penguin knock him from first place without a fight. When Cody wipes out and encounters Geek, a recluse aging former surfer living in the jungle, he learns some important lessons about life and surfing, and even teaches Geek a thing or two.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Immediately standing out from every animated movie released by a major studio, Surf’s Up hopped on the mockumentary comedy craze back in 2007 with a story that unfolds through the lens of a documentary crew. The subject is Cody, a young penguin with big dreams of becoming a champion surfer like his idol Big Z. What follows is a coming-of-age underdog sports story with genuinely hilarious gags, a fantastic ensemble of characters, and a bodacious soundtrack.
Let’s just get this out of the way right now. Shia LaBeouf and James Woods appear in this movie, the former as the lead character Cody, and the latter as a shady event promoter. One has been accused of some rather heinous acts, and the other is a nutjob who is beyond satire. But if you can tolerate their presence, you’ll be in for a satisfying ride.
Anyway, the rest of the Surf’s Up cast is outstanding because directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck (who would go on to co-direct the Frozen franchise) selected stars who fit the characters in the film rather than bringing in as many big name talents as possible. Zooey Deschanel’s gentle voice works as a lifeguard who takes care of the reclusive Geek, who is voiced effortlessly and perfectly by Jeff Bridges, definitely doing an animated version of The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Then there’s Jon Heder as a surfing chicken, which is the second best use of the actor’s natural voice since his breakthrough role in Napoleon Dynamite, and Diedrich Bader as the douchebro de facto villain, Tank ‘The Shredder’ Evans. And let’s not forget the brief but hilarious appearance of Brian Posehn as Cody’s taunting brother.
The mockumentary style of this movie is what makes it infinitely better than your average animated movie. It provides such a satisfying swathe of comedy, from the talking heads (especially those featuring random young penguins with real children voicing them) to the way characters react to the crew appearing at surprising times. There are even gags that come from the crew as off-screen characters. It’s essentially a scripted sports documentary with larger than life characters that happen to be walking and talking animals. Maybe you can just imagine that all these talking penguins and other anthropomorphic animals were discovered by a documentary crew and everything you’re watching is totally real.
Finally, injecting the right energy into the proceedings is the soundtrack, which is crammed with rock favorites like “Welcome to Paradise” by Green Day, “You Get What You Give” by The New Radicals, and of course, “Big Wave” by Pearl Jam. And there’s plenty more where that came from with tracks from Incubus, 311, and Sugar Ray.
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