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Surf's Up: Widescreen Special Edition DVD Review

Surf's Up movie poster Surf's Up

Theatrical Release: June 8, 2007 / Running Time: 85 Minutes / Rating: PG

Directors: Ash Brannon, Chris Buck

Cast: Shia LaBeouf (Cody Maverick), Jeff Bridges (Big Z/Geek), Zooey Deschanel (Lani Aliikai), Jon Heder (Chicken Joe), James Woods (Reggie Belafonte), Diedrich Bader (Tank Evans), Mario Cantone (Mikey Abromowitz), Kelly Slater (Kelly), Rob Machado (Rob), Sal Masekela (SPEN Announcer), Brian Posehn (Glen Maverick), Dana Belben (Edna Maverick), Reed Buck (Arnold), Reese Elowe (Kate), Jack P. Ranjo (Smudge)

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By Kelvin Cedeno

Computer-animated films have reached a boom in the past few years. At the turn of the millennium, there were about three CG-animated films in theaters a year, at most. In 2006, the number rose to a whopping 12. The craze has simmered down slightly, with the 2007 tally expected to reach just eight by year's end, but it still seems like the public has grown weary of so many releases.
At the same time, penguins seemed to be taking over the screen too, via the well-attended and Oscar-winning March of the Penguins and Happy Feet. When promotion began for Surf's Up, the general consensus was one of groans. Not only was there yet another CGI comedy hitting theaters, but its primary cast was made up of penguins. At first glance, the project reeked of something trying to earn easy cash based off tried-and-true subjects and mediums.

Surf's Up is presented as a documentary following Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) and his aspirations to compete in the Penguin World Surfing Championship. Despite being frowned upon by his family and other members of his community, Cody manages to become a contestant. He meets a wide variety of personalities at the competition, including the airy and laid-back surfer Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), the outgoing and adventurous lifeguard Lani Aliikai (Zooey Deschanel), and the quirky, off-beat recluse known as the Geek (Jeff Bridges). Upon being humiliated by nine-time champion Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), Cody becomes more determined than ever to win the Championship. After his mysterious past is revealed, the Geek offers to train Cody, but the two consistently butt heads as the event draws near.

The plot will be familiar to many. The story of a former champ trying to pass the baton to a snarky and conceited young prodigy has been done many times. Surprisingly, Surf's Up manages to avoid most of the clichés and pitfalls that come with such well-tread territory. Part of this is helped by the mockumentary style implemented. Whenever there's a risk of getting too comfortable, the film cuts away to a one-on-one interview with a supporting character, similar to a device used on television's "The Office" and, long before those series, This is Spinal Tap. In Surf's Up, these often clever and entertaining scenes prove to be the highlight.

In the middle, Cody (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) and his older brother Glen (left, Brian Posehn) share nothing but the utmost affection for one another as their mother (Dana Belben) looks on. Cody and Lani (Zooey Deschanel) share a moment while her buggy board stares blankly at you.

Sony Pictures Animation's previous effort, Open Season (2006), was essentially a lesson in how to be derivative. Nearly every aspect of that film felt borrowed from much better recent films. Surf's Up, on the other hand, manages to feel fresh despite the routine story. This comes as no surprise when one sees who directed this: Ash Brannon, the co-director of Pixar's Toy Story 2, and Chris Buck, co-director of Disney's Tarzan. While Surf's Up never approaches the quality of those two films, it's head and shoulders above what most other CGI studios have been offering the past few years.

After the winning CGI pioneer Toy Story, a plethora of computer-animated buddy comedies flooded the market, most famously, Shrek. Something that stemmed from that DreamWorks film was abundance in both low-brow humor and pop culture references that don't predate the film in question by more than 18 months. Surf's Up mostly avoids both areas. Its worst offense in crassness is a scene where one character pees on another to rid an infection, but this is done quickly and with more taste than expected. As for pop references, a few emerge that deal with surfing (pro-surfers Kelly Slater and Rob Machado appear as penguin versions of themselves), but otherwise, the film remains fairly timeless. Most of the humor stems from quippy dialogue that's likely to go over most children's heads, but there's enough physical humor to entertain them too. It's done with such a knack for timing that it even manages to be amusing for adults, as well, a rare thing in many recent animated films.

Both the voice casting and the animation are of high quality. Every actor on board manages to make his or her character memorable and unique, even if given limited screentime. Shia LaBeouf, Jeff Bridges, and Jon Heder all particularly stand out amongst the cast. LaBeouf and Bridges deftly balance outrageous humor and low-key drama, giving their characters needed gravitas. Heder distinguishes Chicken Joe from his famous Napoleon Dynamite personality, keeping the character entertaining without being obnoxious or scenery-chewing. The animation presented here may not reach the heights of Pixar, but one doesn't expect it to, and it's able to hold its own regardless. The filmmakers are able to blend stylization with a certain level of photorealism so that the film never leans too far in either direction. Character animation in particular comes across memorably, especially concerning subtle facial expressions and acting.

Geek (Jeff Bridges) enjoys making Cody look like a metrosexual for the documentary crew. Chicken Joe (Jon Heder) enjoys a nice hot tub bath while some tribal penguins throw in vegetables to open up his pores.

One problem Surf's Up suffers from, though, is an inconsistency in its mockumentary format. When the filmmakers remember to use it, it's done with flair and an understanding of how real documentaries are created. Often though, the movie seems to forget that approach and treats many scenes as a straight narrative. Sometimes, it juggles between the two in a single scene. Whenever Cody surfs, close-ups of him are approached as if there were a camera attached to the board (we even see water drops on the "lens").
But then the film cuts away to grand, fluid, distant shots that not only appear to come from a standard film, but don't reveal any sort of camera shooting what we saw in the previous shot. Perhaps it was a budgetary issue or a concern for what viewers could handle, but if the filmmakers wanted a mockumentary approach, they should've either stuck to it or more clearly delineated the documentary material from the omnipresent viewer camerawork.

Another issue is in regards to screentime. Surf's Up has such a myriad of characters that many of them feel underused. It's understandable why someone like Chicken Joe was used sparingly (and in this, the filmmakers should be commended for not relying too much on such a distinctive sidekick), but others' limited appearances make less sense. Lani is given very little to do in the overall story and seems almost tacked on just so Cody can have a love interest. Tank has a shockingly small amount of exposure despite being the villain, and because of this, the audience forgets about him for long stretches of time. It also seems a shame to have such talent as James Woods (who plays Tank's agent Reggie) gone mostly to waste as he gets lost in the shuffle of so many characters. On one hand, by having so many other characters scaled back, the audience can connect with Cody and Geek more, which is really what matters. The supporting cast is so colorful, though, that viewers are left wanting more.

Even with such problems, Surf's Up does more right than wrong. It presents a spirited and upbeat tone, colorful animation and amusingly distinctive characters and voices. It may not go down as an animation classic, but not every animated film needs to have such lofty ambitions. It's fun and entertaining, and that's all that matters in the end.

Buy Surf's Up: Widescreen Special Edition DVD from Amazon.com DVD Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Spanish)
Subtitles: English, French Spanish;
Closed Captioned
Release Date: October 9, 2007
Suggested Retail Price: $19.94 (Reduced from $28.95)
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
White Keepcase with Holographic Slipcover
Also available in Reformatted Fullscreen DVD
and on Blu-ray Disc


Surf's Up arrives in separate widescreen and fullscreen DVD releases. The former offers a 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. Because of the film's mockumentary style, defects were added so that the image wouldn't be as pristine as other CG films. There's a bit of softness to the picture and a level of fine film grain most evident in darker shots. Speaking of darker shots, night scenes tend to lose some detail. While this may be disconcerting at first, the filmmakers confirm in the audio commentary that these effects are entirely deliberate. With that in mind, the DVD replicates the film's look well. Colors in particular come across strongly, and there's enough detail to override the added soft-focus. The only flaw that likely wasn't intentional is a bit of edge enhancement to the image, seen most notably around text that appears throughout the film. Still, it isn't distracting, and the transfer overall is very pleasing.

Unlike the image, the Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track had none of the flaws inherent in real documentaries, allowing the track to really shine. Surrounds are put to excellent use, especially with the sound of ocean waves crashing and enveloping the listener. Dialogue is crisp and well-defined, and the score and songs are balanced nicely against the effects and voices. French and Spanish 5.1 tracks are also included.

Director Ash Brannon, producer Chris Jenkins, and director Chris Buck introduce the deleted scenes from an unspecified beach while shamelessly promoting their film, for which they also provide an audio commentary. The deleted characters of Doris and Sheila attempt in vain to contact Big Z from the afterlife. Zooey Deschanel and Shia LaBeouf improvise dialogue together in "All Together Now."


Surf's Up comes with a surprisingly informative collection of supplements, starting an audio commentary by directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck with producer Chris Jenkins. The three of them enthusiastically discuss making the film, and there's barely any dead air to be found. Two subjects most discussed are the voice actors' improvisations and the film's documentary-style cinematography, the latter of which the trio admits to using infrequently. The track proves to be both entertaining and informative, making it worth a listen. In an excellent move, it is given its own subtitle track so that everyone can enjoy it.
Such a nice touch is one that ought to be enforced more often to make supplements more accessible.

The video bonuses begin with "Lost Scenes" (7:57). Three scenes are provided, two of which are in storyboard format and the third as behind-the-scenes voiceover footage. Each is introduced by the filmmakers, who explain why it was deleted. While the scenes here are entertaining, it comes as a slight disappointment that other excisions mentioned in the commentary don't appear here.

"Arnold's Zurfinary" (4:11) is a tongue-in-cheek look at various surfing terms, some credible ("pearling") and others not so much ("radical"). It's cute for the little ones, but otherwise doesn't add very much to the overall package.

Next we get "All Together Now: Surf's Up Voice Sessions" (17:02), a featurette that gives us an excellent behind-the-scenes look at the main cast of the film. Unlike other animated films that record voice artists separately, Surf's Up had its actors in the same room for each scene. In doing so, the filmmakers were able to get ad libs galore from the interactions. Each voice actor (except, conspicuously enough, James Woods), is featured both via interviews and voice recording sessions. This ends up being one of the strongest and most interesting features on the disc.

We see how live action cameras were used to give the film its Paul Greengrass-looking camerawork in "Surf Cam." "Making Waves" gives us a look at some early grid work used to get the feel of a rolling ocean wave. "Storyboard to Surfboard" allows us to view a scene through various stages of development.

Three extras appear under the heading Not A Drop of Real Water. The first, "Surf Cam" (7:24), gives a satisfying look as to how the film achieved its documentary-style cinematography. A great deal of footage
shows the crew using real cameras connected to computers as rough animation is played. This unorthodox approach to getting a distinctive look makes for fascinating viewing.

The second featurette, "Making Waves" (12:55), acts as sort of all-encompassing "making-of" on animating the film's waves. We start with the filmmakers' research trip to a real beach to examine how waves and get a feel for actual surfing. The piece proceeds to various CG tests all the way through the final animation renderings. It's a detailed look at how much went into the creation of the film's oceans and waves.

The section's last extra is "Storyboard to Surfboard", a progression reel that lets you view a 2-minute scene in storyboards, rough layout, animation, feathers and fur, effects, or the final film. With any of these selected, the viewer can toggle between them via the seldom-used "angle" button. In addition to these viewing choices, one can also select a composite that shows all six stages at once, as well as a traditional progression reel that toggles through all the stages automatically.

Producer Chris Jenkins pep talks to a penguin before it arrives at the "Surf’s Up" premiere. One wonders how much he was paid to do this (Jenkins, not the penguin). In just three easy steps, you, too, can create your own CG surfboard! I don’t know what’s more disconcerting: the fact that so many whales are lying immobile on the water’s surface or that Chicken Joe is large enough to grab a coconut from the top of a palm tree.

"Meet the Penguins" (3:53) is a strange, random, and, quite frankly, rather pointless feature. We follow two live penguins through the film's production and, finally, its premiere. Along the way, we see several cast and crew members treat the marine birds like A-list celebrities, catering to their every need.

The Secret Spot is home to three set-top games. "Make Your Own Surfboard" is virtually exactly what it sounds like. Using the remote, one can select what sizes to cut the board down to and what color to paint it. Afterwards, Cody is shown riding the designed board for a few mere seconds. Because of how little the viewer can actually customize his board, the game is over with literally within a minute and a half.

The second game, "Whale Hopping" has the viewer guide Chicken Joe through the ocean by hopping atop of stationary whales, avoiding active blowholes along the way. While the first game barely featured enough interactivity to pass as a game, this one proves to be too frustrating as the whales seem to blow water from their holes for seemingly minutes on end.

"Lava Surf Game", the final activity, requires using the remote's directional arrows to slide through a CG loop of an intricate cave. Unfortunately, the directional leaves that glow when it's time to turn do so so dimly that one is forced to stare at them the whole game rather than the CG visuals. If one does wish to admire the fast-paced CG, not pressing any buttons automatically earns a win. All three games don't provide much fun except in one key aspect: the main actors all return to lend their voices to the games. This is perhaps the only real reason to give them a try.

"Progression Reels" (5:19) differs from the "Storyboard to Surfboard" feature found earlier on the disc. Here, various scenes are dissected rather than just one, and the filmmakers offer a running commentary throughout. This makes it more interesting and comprehensive than the other reel.

A piece of concept art from the light galleries depicts Big Z’s home. The ChubbChubbs prove to Santa that they’ve been using Crest Whitening in their all-new holiday short "The ChubbChubbs Save Christmas." The Surf’s Up DVD’s main menu showcases, among other things, a look at the ocean waves against the sunset.

Two galleries are split into "Characters (16 stills) and Locations (28 stills).
Both sections present nice artwork, though one wishes there was more on display, including photographs and publicity materials.

The music video "Lose Myself" (3:27) is the last movie-related extra on the disc. The song is performed by Lauryn Hill but isn't one of her better efforts. The video itself does nothing to spice the song up as it strictly provides films clips; Hill herself never appears once.

Available directly from the main menu, The ChubbChubbs! section provides two shorts starting with the original The ChubbChubbs! short (5:40). In this Oscar-winning 2002 CGI cartoon, a down-on-his-luck alien tries to warn citizens of the impending ChubbChubbs that are coming to destroy the city. The short is filled with sci-fi references galore, and these offer minor amusement, though the short itself isn't very memorable (and certainly not Oscar-worthy). Making its debut on this DVD is the short The ChubbChubbs Save Christmas (5:43). Here, the alien and his newly acquired ChubbChubb friends try to locate Santa so he can grant them a permanent home, something they seem to have trouble keeping. This one is a bit more entertaining than the original, but it still somewhat bland.

Two brief Easter eggs can be found on the "Lost Scenes" submenu. The first (0:28) showcases the Surf's Up cameo by Meeper, the alien character from the two ChubbChubb shorts. The second egg (0:47) reveals director Ash Brannon's love for UFOs and how several of these are hidden throughout the film.

The disc opens up with previews for The Waterhorse: Legend of the Deep, Daddy Day Camp, Storm Hawks, Spider-Man 3, and Monster House. All of these can be found under "Previews" along with trailers for Open Season, Open Season 2, Are We Done, Yet?, Holly Hobbie and Friends, The Last Day of Summer, Shredderman Rules, and It's A Big, Big World.

Surf's Up's main menu features a montage of movie clips, while characters encourage the viewer to make a selection. On submenus, making up for the lack of animation is the fact that the voice actors appear on virtually all of them (even "Scene Selection") to comment on what's being offered. This puts the entertaining menus a step above those usually created. With the exception of the deleted scenes and music video, everything on the DVD is enhanced for 16x9 displays. The disc comes packaged in a standard white keepcase. An outer slipcover replicates the artwork, but features a holographic texture wherever water is shown.

Tank (Diedrich Bader), the villain of the piece, poses with Suzie, one of the nine women in his life. Cody and Geek surf off into the sunset before Annette Funicello arrives to film her latest beach picture.


Surf's Up is not a great animated feature, but it's by all means a fun and well-made one that manages to find an identity in the messy sea of CG releases. The film is given a fine DVD presentation with positive picture and sound and a well-rounded collection of supplements. To those who've seen the film and enjoyed it, this DVD merits a purchase. To those who have grown weary of the CGI comedy and penguin onslaughts, the disc is worth at least a rental as a testament to how animated features can be more than shallow marketing gimmicks.

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The Voice Cast of Surf's Up:
Shia LaBeouf: DisturbiaThe Even Stevens MovieHolesDisney Channel HolidayTransformers
Jon Heder: Blades of GloryMama's Boy | Jeff Bridges: Stick ItTronIron Man
Zooey Deschanel: Yes ManBridge to TerabithiaThe Hitchhikers' Guide to the GalaxyOnce Upon a Mattress
James Woods: HerculesRecess: School's OutMickey's House of Villains | Diedrich Bader: Buzz Lightyear of Star Command

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Reviewed October 11, 2007.

Text copyright 2007 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2007 Columbia Pictures, Sony Pictures Animation, and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.
Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.