Surf's Up

Directors: Ash Brannon & Chris Buck

Maybe it’s a matter of taste—I’ve always preferred penguins to rats and surfers to chefs so my choice for the 2007 Best Animated Feature Film category of the Academy Awards would have gone to Ash Brannon and Chris Buck’s infectious, breezy and inventively funny Surf’s Up as opposed to the winner of the category, the aesthetically impressive but ultimately off-putting Pixar feature Ratatouille about a little rat who becomes a big time chef.

Taking a cue from some of my favorite surfing documentaries and (hands down) some of my favorite documentaries of all time including Endless Summer and Riding Giants, Brannon and Buck decided to merge mock-documentary with animation to create this adorable mockumentary about Cody Maverick (voiced by Shia LeBeouf) a young, hopeful penguin from Shiverpool, Antarctica whose goal is to win the Big Z Memorial Surf Off Competition at Pen Gu Island. Discovered by an overly enthusiastic bird (Sex and the City’s Mario Cantone), Cody travels to the island to compete and pay tribute to the legendary Big Z who, when he was a small penguin was given advice by the surfing great to never give up.

Once at Pen Gu, he becomes fast friends with a slacker rooster named Chicken Joe (Jon Heder playing it as a cross between stoned Sean Penn from Fast Times and Keanu Reeves in everything) and falling for a cute, feisty lifeguard named Lani (the adorable Zooey Deschanel) who introduces him to the Geek (Jeff Bridges returning to Lebowski mode) in the hopes he’ll get some advice. The competition favorite Tank Evans (a hilarious Diedrich Bader who had me laughing so hard I had to rewind his scenes to catch every line) doesn’t worry about the less-than-talented newcomer Cody as he retreats into the woods with his Miyagi like Geek or Joe who goes looking for his lost friend and along the way, the film continues to mix both childlike humor with enough hipness in the soundtrack that features Green Day, Pearl Jam, Incubus and others to help move things along.

Ingenious, affable and fresh—while initially I’d feared that the gimmick of a fake documentary would grow old after the thirty minute mark, my concerns were soon forgotten by the brisk pace and spontaneous energy that seemed indicative of the film’s shoot which, uncharacteristic for an animated film, relied heavily on improvisation and allowed the actors to join one another in the studio to play out their scenes together. Using a new technique of motion-capure by mounting one system on an old camera to give it the illusion that the film was handheld according to IMDb, the crisp and seemingly authentic animation and charm of the actors helped make Surf’s Up my favorite animated film from 2007.