Column | ‘Surf’s Up’ could be the film of the summer


Courtesy of IMDb

Promotional image from Dreamworks’ “Surf’s Up,” 2007.

By Lisa Chasanov, Summer Editor

As the summer solstice marks the official beginning of the season, it comes time to designate a movie of the summer — and Dreamworks’ 2007 animated penguin mockumentary “Surf’s Up” is certainly a contender.

“Surf’s Up,” Dreamworks’ tongue-in-cheek counterpart to Pixar’s 2006 penguin movie “Happy Feet,” simultaneously achieves many things. It is not only a family movie with bright and engaging characters, but also a commentary on sports journalism, a parody of surfing culture, the source of an impressive soundtrack album and a well-executed animated comedy.

The film opens on a direct shot of Cody (Shia LaBeouf), a young and ambitious surfing enthusiast from Shiverpool. Cody is the focus of the film’s fictional documentary and the plucky and awkward protagonist of “Surf’s Up.”

Through this contextualizing interview, Cody is revealed to be an angsty and misunderstood teenager who models his life after a legendary surfer who tragically passed away during a competition on Pen Gu Island.

Frames from “Surf’s Up” evoke the dry formula of Ken Burns-esque historical documentaries, including slow camera pans across black-and-white images, colorful character-establishing interviews with various figures in Cody’s life and segments of coverage from SPEN, or Sports Penguin Entertainment Network.

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Throughout Shiverpool, Cody’s talents and ambition are undervalued by his friends and family, who encourage him to aim for more realistic goals.

In one scene, older penguins with Yiddish accents comment on Cody’s aspirations.

“He wants to be different,” the older gentlemen remark. “All the time with the different. Who’s got the time in the day? Only six months in a day.

When Mikey Abromowitz (Mario Cantone), a scout for an international surfing competition, begrudgingly stops in Shiverpool on his world tour, Cody receives his big break. On the whale ride to idyllic Pen Gu Islans, Cody meets an eclectic cast of characters including the stoner-reminiscent Lake Michigan surfer Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), who becomes one of his closest friends.

Chicken Joe surfing in Lake Michigan (Courtesy of IMDb)

Upon his arrival to Pen Gu, Cody is instantly struck with Lani (Zooey Deschanel), a lifeguard at the competition. Lani and Cody build a friendship after the young surfer is wiped out by Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), a cocky showboater who is projected to win the Big Z Memorial showdown.

The film is chock full of quotable moments, TikTok-viral frames and nuanced humor — contributing to a balanced and enjoyable viewing experience for the entire family.

Although the film is undoubtedly an enjoyable watch, it is not immune to criticism. In its parody of American documentary filmmaking, it portrays “PenGu-ans,” an indigenous group of penguins from the island of Pen Gu, as a violent and uninhibited people.

This problematic portrayal could be attributed to the specificities of the time period, but its potential to harm already underrepresented groups is still worth noting in discussions of the film. 

The soundtrack of “Surf’s Up” ranges genres from grunge and dad rock to reggae, reinforcing its credibility as a surfer movie and resulting in an eclectic and well-curated standalone album.

The soundtrack — which features songs from Pearl Jam, The Dirty Heads, 311, Priestess and Ms. Lauryn Hill — enhances the film, enriching and subtly accompanying its plot points.

In one frame of the documentary, Cody is shown paddling in the ocean as the moon illuminates the surface of the water and the somber guitar intro to “Drive” by Incubus plays softly in the background.

“Cody’s this, Cody’s that,” the distraught young surfer laments. “Cody’s me, bro. Let me be me. When is that gonna start?”

Although “Surf’s Up” is primarily a family comedy, it is also a unique contribution to the limited genre of animated mockumentaries, a heartwarming story, an impressive soundtrack and a testament to the institution of friendship.

You know, we’ve known each other way back,” Chicken Joe explains to the camera crew while searching for Cody in the Pen Gu forest. “Since, like, yesterday, I think it was. We’ve got a lot in common.”

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