The cleverest touch in the new animated feature Surf’s Up isn’t in the movie itself. It’s in the trailer. We see shots of the barren Antarctic wilderness while a stentorian voice describes the stark landscape, the bitter cold, the fact that only one creature is able to live and thrive there, etc.—as those adorable tuxedo-clad birds waddle happily around the ice floes. Suddenly the soundtrack erupts with groans of derision: “Oh, no! Not another penguin movie!” And the camera cuts to a movie theater filled with penguins jeering and throwing popcorn at the screen.
The trailer tells us, with tongue in cheek, that even the penguins have had enough, already. If the makers of Surf’s Up had taken their own joke more to heart, we’d all be better off.
This is the one about the surfing penguins, not to be confused with the (animated) tap-dancing penguins of last year, or the (real) marching penguins of the year before that. If you want a good way to keep them all straight, think of it this way: March of the Penguins is the one that won Best Documentary Feature for 2005. Happy Feet is the one that won Best Animated Feature for 2006. And Surf’s Up is the one that isn’t likely to win anything.
Many animated features in the past few years have suffered from a sort of market-induced bloating. They had simple ideas that would have been perfectly adequate for a six-minute cartoon in the days when those played before the feature, but now that cartoon shorts have gone the way of newsreels and Pete Smith Specialties, they have to be the feature themselves, and their threadbare premises won’t stretch out to 80 or 90 minutes. Remember Everyone’s Hero? Over the Hedge? Open Season? (Or, for that matter, Shrek the Third?) Surf’s Up takes the degree of bloat up—or down—another notch: The premise makes an amusing trailer, but even six minutes would be stretching it too far.
Penguins invented surfing. That’s the joke. To make the joke last 85 minutes was the challenge for the movie’s four writers (Lisa Addario, Christian Darren, Don Rhymer and Joe Syracuse) and two directors (Ash Brannon and Chris Buck). One trick they use is to give the movie a mockumentary style, with the characters being interviewed by off-camera voices (Brannon and Buck themselves) about surfing as a sport and the upcoming annual Penguin World Surfing Championship. Another trick is the story they tell: Upstart hot-dogging kid takes on the arrogant reigning champ. But first, he has to learn the true spirit of surfing from a legendary old-timer who has retired from the limelight because the sport’s become overrun with agents, hustlers and mercenary types who are sullying the purity of … yadda yadda yadda.
Neither trick works. The “mockumentary” style is reminiscent of the ersatz outtakes pioneered by Pixar over the closing credits of A Bug’s Life. But those were funny because we’d already become involved in the story and come to care about the characters; only then was it funny to see the evil Hopper revealed as a whimpering Method actor frustrated at having to do take after take. To see California-drawling surfers as California-drawling penguins¸ both “on” and “off” the screen, is only a mild chuckle even the first time.
And the story isn’t one we care about, least of all when it’s played as straight and dull as it is here. There’s never any serious doubt about how it’s going to turn out, and the only diversion Surf’s Up offers is in trying to identify those vaguely familiar voices. As a service to readers, here are the main ones: Shia La Beouf (upstart hot-dogging kid), Jeff Bridges (legendary old-timer), Zooey Deschanel (old-timer’s sexy lifeguard sister), Diedrich Bader (arrogant reigning champ), Jon Heder (hero’s comic sidekick, a chicken), and James Woods (slick shyster sports agent, a woodchuck or something).
Years ago, my third-grade teacher Mrs. Coil read Richard and Florence Atwater’s charming Mr. Popper’s Penguins aloud to the class, and ever since then I’ve thought it would make an equally delightful movie. But I’ve changed my mind. No more penguin movies for a while, OK, guys? Please?