I should lay my cards on the table at the very beginning here. I am not a fan of Computer Animation. I am a grumpy old man (God, I hoped I would never write that) who is very much a traditionalist. I believe that great animation ended with ”The Lion king” (1994). As far as I am concerned, you can keep your Pixar films. However, Surf's Up arrived on my door mat so a review was needed. In order to better do justice to the film, however, I borrowed my five year old niece who had been pestering me for a week about whether the film had arrived yet or not (try explaining a postal strike to a child of that age).
So, with her dead excited and me grumbling into my beard I booted up the PS3 and started up the movie. Within only ten minutes, she was asking me whether it was nearly over yet, and jumping all over the sofa. I was so captivated I was tempted to tie her down to shut her up.
Surf's Up is a story about Surfing Penguins. The main protagonist of the story is Cody Maverick (Shia Laboeuf), a young penguin living in Shiverpool in the Arctic. Cody dreams of bigger things. He wants to escape his world, and gets his chance when promoter Reggie Belafonte (James Woods) casts his net wide to find participants for the annual Big Z memorial competition, in honour of the greatest Penguin who ever surfed (Jeff Bridges). Cody gets wiped out in his first challenge, having never seen waves so big. He is taken to the hut of the mysterious Geek, who patches him up and then proceeds to mentor him in the ways of surfing. But is Geek all he seems? In fact, is anything about this competition all it seems?
For all of Pixar's so-called innovation, Surf's Up brings something brand new to the table, and that is the integration of CGI animation and the use of a hand held camera. The technique is so technologically advanced that I don't think I can properly explain it here. It is explained in detail in one of the documentaries, but to be honest it confused the hell out of me. It just seemed so impossible as a technique. But, it works - and it works astoundingly well. The film breaks new ground in the way it approaches its subject.
For the whole film is shot in a documentary style. The riff is that a film crew is following Cody and his travails. As a device this works remarkably well, and the technique means that you really do get a feeling of being in the middle of the action. The camera will suddenly pan and catch the very end of something - as if the event was spontaneous and not meant to happen. The camera will suddenly lose and then regain focus as a subject moves too fast. The camera operators even get involved in the story on a few occasions. The end result is an extremely well realised and immersive style that serves the film superbly.
Another great plus point is the voice acting. As another documentary shows, the actors were encouraged to ad-lib and then the animation was structured around the dialogue. All dialogue was also recorded with the participants in the same room. This adds to the chaotic charm of the whole endeavour, as sparky dialogue pings between actors who really seem to be investing a lot in their characters, and the animated characters on screen seem engaged with each other in a way that is quite unlike other animated films I have seen.
Shia Lebouef does a very good job as Cody, and the supporting actors all do a great job too. But it is Jeff Bridges who really steals the show here, bringing a laconic and world weary riff to his character - and he really seems to relish the character he is playing.
So why did the five year old lose interest after only ten minutes? I think that this film is probably skewed a bit older than other recent animations I have seen. The documentary style, the language, and the constant use of captions mean that it is a little more inaccessible to younger children. There are very few sight gags here that younger children would appreciate, although plenty for adults to savour. I think it is probably the case that a group of film-makers have made the animation that they wanted to see, rather than considering the wide audience dynamic that the likes of Pixar have always aimed for. An example of this is the middle section where The Geek, is training young Cody in the ways of surfing and of making his board. This is a very clever “stoner” scene, which seems to be almost a homage to Yoda and Mr. Miyagi. However, whereas I was appreciating the subtleties of this scene, the five year old was bored out of her mind.
This should by no means distract from the quality of what is on offer here, as the quality of the animation, the voice acting, and the story generally is excellent. It doesn't lapse into your typical Hollywood schmaltz until the very final scenes, and the quality of the animation is quite simply breathtaking. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed my time spent with this film and would regard it as one of the best examples of animation I have recently seen. I would imagine that anyone over the age of about 9 or 10 would enjoy this very much, but I would think twice about sitting anyone younger down in front of it.
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