DVD Review: 'Surf's Up'
Penguins were golden til this movie came along, but does disappointing box office mean the movie's bad?
Do we interpret the relative box office disappointment of "Surf's Up" as a sign that the mania for flightless birds has ebbed or as an indication that the easiest path to the hearts of small children isn't, in fact, by making a movie that's less about cuddly monogamous penguins and more about playing meta-formal games with documentary stylistics?
Like its main characters, "Surf's Up" is a peculiar bird indeed. Unlike "March of the Penguins" or "Happy Feet," the movie makes no claims to being anything other than utterly ridiculous, like the screenwriters said, "You know what would be hilarious? Surfing penguins," only to realize that they didn't have any more creative ideas. They proceeded to craft the most convention animated movie plot imaginable -- undersized protagonist (voiced by Shia LaBeouf) gets mocked for his unlikely dream (surfing), but with the help of a world-wise mentor (Jeff Bridges, doing The Dude-as-Penguin) realizes said dream and gets the girl.
Then, having recognized just how uninspiring their script was, directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck decided to have a bit of fun. "Surf's Up" is structured like a documentary, complete with talking head interviews and grainy archival footage. In contrast the the usual smoothness of animated films, "Surf's Up" has a rough, hand-held quality which keeps its visually interesting even if the narrative becomes stale less than half-way through its already brief 85-minute running time. It's likely that "Surf's Up" fell smack-dab in the chasm between its intended audiences -- Grown-ups may have wanted more than just a stoner chicken (voiced by Jon Heder) and a few random post-modern gags about exposed boom mics, while kids probably would have preferred more of the cute baby penguins and more video game-style thrillers.
The DVD is loaded with bonus features, split pretty much down the middle between goodies for children and meatier material for adults.
Expect small fries to be tickled by "Arnold's Zurfinary," in which the frequently drowning and adorable wee penguin teaches viewers to talk like a stereotypical surfer. "The Secret Spot" has a pair of games that didn't keep me engaged for very long, plus a decorate-your-own-virtual-board tool. The DVD also includes the Oscar-winning short "The ChubbChubbs" and the new "The ChubbChubbs Save Xmas," which both provide more immediate gratification than the actual feature.
It's also noteworthy that the behind-the-scenes featurettes are more intriguing than the future. The three-part "Not a Drop of Real Water" goes into surprising depth on the movie's technology, particularly the use of a new motion-capture technique that was central to the film's documentary-style look. A look at both progression reels and storyboards show the level of visual detail that went into the production. The featurettes are good enough to render the filmmakers' commentary entirely unnecessary.
Veterans of standard Disney voice-over featurettes -- usually just an A-list actor standing alone in a booth making funny noises -- will be interested in "All Together Now: The 'Surf's Up' Voice Sessions," which showcases how the film used improvisation and multi-actor recording sessions to yield dialogue that seems loose and on-the-fly. And if you're one of those dozen people who doesn't find Mario Cantone's voice to be like nails on a chalkboard, perhaps you'll be amused at having the "Sex and the City" star as your penguin tour guide in another feature.