It's a movie about Penguins...and it's good. Wow.
I love Penguins.
Let me say it again: I love Penguins. They are adorable critters. Flightless birds that nevertheless "fly" underwater. Even though Berkeley Breathed has been pounding poor Opus into the ground, during the original run of Bloom County I thought he was great. And of course, gotta love that Tux. Wheeze, Pudge, Tennesee Tuxedo, penguins have been beloved characters in animation.
However: I did not love Madagascar. I thought the gangsta penguins were trite and tiresome. And I certainly did not love Happy Feet. March Of The Penguins worked only because you were seeing real penguins in their real life and their real environment.
Surf's Up could have been trite and cutesy if they didn't watch out. But it isn't.
Here are six reasons why Surf's Up doesn't suck:
1.) The ensemble cast was allowed to record the track as an ensemble, ala Bullwinkle and Rocky. Modern mics allow for total audio separation of tracks, without "leakage." This afforded the ensemble the means to improv a good portion of the dialogue.
2.) "The Big Lebowski" with feathers. The pivotal character is not the "hero" (Cody Maverick, played by Shia LeBoeuf) but Geek, portrayed by Jeff Bridges. Geek abides, dude. Excellent vocal performance. Great character. Easily the most engaging character since Mr. Incredible.
3.) The character design creates distinctions between what could be monotonous characters ala Happy Feet and allows for real acting. I would have liked a little more looseness and a little more ability for facial squash-and-stretch but there was enough to make it work. The "loosest" and "most cartoony" character of the bunch, Chicken Joe, was able to do the best "acting."
4.) Animation was done by humans rather than mo-cap. This extended not only to the characters but also to the waves, which transcended traditional notions of "effects animation" and entered the realm of being true character animation. The waves were characters in and of themselves. And some of them got the best lines of all.
5.) No musical numbers. This was done as a "mockumentary" so there are no temptations to do showstopper numbers like with Happy Feet. The music is there as seasoning, punctuation. Not as raison d'etre. This worked.
6.) This is a movie like Pixar used to do. It is 100% "story driven" as opposed to set-piece driven. The movie compares favorably with the two Toy Story movies for good story.
Other good points: there are no ham-handed attempts to send pro-social "messages" in this movie. The only "message" here is that surfing is fun, and you get into a sport for the fun of it, not to win. The fun is its own reward. It helps if you have seen surfing documentaries to "get" some of the in-jokes in the movie. There is a riff on a crucial bit of footage in the documentary Dogtown and Z-Boys which is nothing short of spectacular. The soundtrack is great, with one song missing: "My Wave" by Soundgarden. Maybe they couldn't get clearance on that particular track. Too bad, there is a character in the movie which could have used it as a "theme song."
This is a worthwhile film, particularly since Summer is almost here. Catch this wave before it gets blown out, dudes.