The film's clever framing device is that we're watching a documentary chronicling the Cinderella-story odyssey of a young misfit surfer from an Antarctic fishing community who wrangles his way into the big surfing competition on Pen Gu Island (think of it as a cross between Hawaii and New Zealand)and after a savage pre-contest wipeout learns several important life lessons from a legendary surfer who has been assumed dead for the past decade (the competition is being held in his honor). During the course of the story we see interviews with the hero's family, neighbors and other assorted characters intercut with the more linear main narrative, and in about five minutes I completely forgot that I was watching a CGI cartoon about surfing penguins (and other poultry); each character is quite well realized and interesting in their own right, and the main lesson that winning is insignificant when measured against friendship and the sheer joy of doing whatever it is that turns you on rings true rather than sappy.
Hero penguin Cody Maverick (oy, that name!) is a plucky protagonist who is perhaps too focused on taking the competition's prize, and his monomania about it blinds him to all else around, including the incredible beauty of the island, the friendship of stoned-beyond-belief Chicken Joe, and requisite gorgeous lifeguard Lani (and her silent Humboldt squid floatation device). Embarrassed and licking his wounds after his earlier wipeout disgrace (against the hulking world-champion surfer asshole/bully, no less), Cody meets the Geek, a portly recluse hiding out in the deep jungle who proves to be Big Z (Jeff Bridges, pretty much reprising his role from THE BIG LEBOWSKI), the allegedly dead master surfer who faked his own death upon realizing that the time of blissed-out wave-riders like himself was passing, and that the era of the all-for-money-glory-and-endorsements surfer had dawned. Having found the Master Po to his Grasshopper, Cody sits at the feet of Big Z and basks in his knowledge and skills, impatient at first, but soon learning the zen of the surfer from a shredder whose effortless style is boddhisatva-like; there's a beautiful touch when, after explaining the perfect wonder of where one's consciousness can go when shooting the tube, Biz Z rockets out of a colossal pipeline, turns his body around one-hundred and eighty degrees around on his board and bows in reverence, hands steepled together, to the awesome majesty of the wave.
During their time together, Cody and Big Z bond and their relationship yields benefits that neither could have foreseen; moved by Cody's zeal and hero-worship, Big Z leaves his self-imposed exile and rediscovers his place upon the water, both as an inspiration to others and as a mentor, while Cody learns to have fun and discovers a father figure in Big Z, an ideal replacement for his biological sire who ended up as a snack for a Killer Whale. Cody also grows closer to Lani the lifeguard - who is also Big Z's niece - but as the competition looms, Cody's new enlightenment wars with his desire for glory and it's a toss-up to see which will triumph in the end.
SURF'S UP has much to recommend, but here are the things to note in case you need a more concise guide before seeing it:
- The CGI animation is seamless to the point of completely placing the viewer firmly within its digital reality. Seriously, the shit looks real. Every image and location is a feast for the eyes, so I urge you to see it on the big screen before it loses much of its visual punch thanks to the inevitable loss of scope and scale when seen at home on DVD or cable, although huge plasma screen TV's may eliminate some of that problem.
- Jeff Bridges steals the movie as Biz Z, and it's a joy to watch a corpulent penguin ride the waves with a totally believable, near-mystical grace.
- John Heder (NAPOLEON DYNAMITE) as the voice of Chicken Joe turns in the most obviously stoned character ever to be seen in a "family" film, a turn that will go right over the heads of the little ones and cause parents to knowingly giggle to themselves.
- And while we're on the subject, SURF'S UP is an ideal smoke-a-blunt movie thanks to its leisurely pace (which may bore the kids), mellow surfer vibe, and eye candy visuals, so if you feel inclined, smoke 'em if ya got 'em!
- Though marketed as a family film, SURF'S UP is really geared to a grownup sensibility, and the proceedings may not have enough belly laughs or fast-paced silliness to keep the tykes interested, especially once the penguin angle becomes a moot point and the viewer accepts the protagonists as characters and not merely cute, anthropomorphized flightless marine fowl. It's perfectly suitable for all ages, but the under-tens may find it hard to stay quiet or sit still for what is mostly a character study, so keep that in mind.