I was somewhat surprised by Surf's Up, which is better than you might think from the trailers. It's very much a movie for children, without much to capture the interest of adults, but there are so many subpar movies for kids these days that it's refreshing to see one that entertains in an almost classic fashion. The filmmakers behind Surf's Up were obviously aiming for a timeless family movie, something kids 10 years in the future could watch and still enjoy, although by then the animation might be considered dated in some way.
The structure of the narrative is the only real pop-culture reference -- it's shot in faux-documentary style, like The Office, and the beginning is obviously meant to recall March of the Penguins in a few ways. (In fact, the film is funnier than the few minutes I lasted through Farce of the Penguins.) The offscreen filmmakers interviewing the penguins are voiced by Surf's Up's directors, Ash Brannon and Chris Buck. The pre-credit sequence, which features "vintage" footage of penguin surfing legend Big Z and home movies of the main character, is done beautifully with some clever graphics and was my favorite part of the film.
Grown-ups will find the plot and payoffs to be very much obvious. In fact, it's the same exact plot that Cars used, almost suspiciously so. Cody McQueen Maverick (Shia LaBeouf) is a teenage penguin from Antarctica who is confident that he can compete with the big-time surfers in a tropical island competition ... even the reigning champion Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader, aka Lawrence in Office Space). After a humiliating wipeout, he has to learn surfing skills and life lessons from a more experienced mentor with A Past, The Dude Geek (Jeff Bridges). Cody also meets a sensible yet cute female penguin lifeguard (Zooey Deschanel) and a crazy surfing chicken (Jon Heder). You know from the first 10 minutes where the movie will go, and there are very few surprises, except perhaps that James Woods is playing a jolly yet cynical promoter named Reggie Belafonte.
Most of the film's humor is also geared toward a younger audience. The writers are well aware that kids love those jokes that sound borderline dirty but really aren't (what I call the "shiitake mushroom joke" after Spy Kids) so we get a lot of lines like a chicken saying, "He's out here somewhere, I can feel it in my nuggets." And of course there are fart jokes and butt jokes and poop jokes. Fortunately the film does not rely solely on this type of humor to be entertaining -- the documentary style allows for some silly but effective sight gags. A few gags are meant for an older crowd, like Tank's obsession with his trophies in which he calls them "special ladies," which is a lot funnier than it ought to be. And anyone might find Jeff Bridges funny; this isn't one of his career highlights, but hey, it's better than Seabiscuit and he's certainly livelier than he was in Tideland.
The animation is serviceable -- it didn't impress me, but it wasn't annoying or cheesy either. The penguins are created to look more realistic than cute, except for some fluffy child penguins that will probably be featured heavily in merchandising. The music, on the other hand, was very much contemporary ... and about as subtle an accompaniment as a pineapple to the head. However, if you stay through the end of the credits, you get to hear Jeff Bridges singing, which is a nice payoff for the actor's fans. The movie does have a post-credits sequence but it's very short and you're missing nothing if you have to leave early to ferry kids to the bathroom.
One of the things parents will like about Surf's Up is that it is only 85 minutes long, although of course that doesn't count all the trailers and commercials you have to sit through in a theater too. Even at 85 minutes, I felt like the movie dragged for me ... but again, I'm a tad older than the target demographic. The kids in the audience were overall attentive and amused, not restless. (They made kissy noises during the "mushy" part!) Watching this movie made me feel old and jaded, but young people who haven't seen hundreds of films with similar plots and characters will find Surf's Up a fun summer movie.