Home > Reviews > SURF’S UP – Mychael Danna

SURF’S UP – Mychael Danna

Original Review by Clark Douglas

Yeah, I know, I know, yet another talking animal movie. There’s very few species left that haven’t all ready been covered by some sort of cutesy kid’s flick. And penguins… well, it’s not like we need more penguins. So, it was a nice surprise to discover that “Surf’s Up” offers a convincing argument for the worthiness of it’s existence. It tries to offer something new to the well-worn genre, and turns out feeling like a very good-natured cross between Christopher Guest and the Coen Brothers… it just happens to be animated, and features penguins.

The movie is creatively “filmed” in a documentary style, complete with lots of shaky, grainy footage and interviews throughout the proceedings. We are told the story of young Cody Maverick, voiced with refreshing calmness by Shia LaBeouf. He’s always had dreams of being a surfer, and one day get his opportunity to participate in a major tournament. Then we meet all the requisite supporting characters: a love interest voice by Zooey Deshcanel, a goofy sidekick named Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), a blustery villain (Diedrich Bader), and a self-serving promoter named Reggie (a terrific James Woods). These are all fairly typical characters, but thankfully, they serve merely as peripheral colors.

At the center of the movie is a wonderfully developed relationship between Cody Maverick and his mentor, a slacker penguin voiced by Jeff Bridges. Fans of the Coen Brothers will be happy to know that Bridges is essentially reprising his role as The Dude, aka The Big Lebowski… though for all legal purposes, he is here called The Geek, aka Big Z. The majority of the film is spent with these two characters, and their scenes together are real treasures, feeling very genuine and unforced, which is something that’s quite hard to accomplish in an animated film.

Film music fans may be surprised to learn that the score was provided by Mychael Danna, who is a complete stranger to the animation genre. Unsurprisingly, his score does not adhere to the clichés of animation scores, avoiding the sort of mickey mousing and cutesiness that we’re all used to for this kind of thing. Oddly enough, his main theme feels like something from one of Philip Glass’ documentary scores, it’s a really lovely and intelligent piece of writing. It shows up during several key emotional scenes during the film, and Danna also hands in a sizable amount of pleasant beach-flavored source music. There is currently no score release, and I’m not sure whether there’s enough score to merit one, but I’d certainly love to hear at least a handful of the cues from “Surf’s Up” on their own. Unfortunately, about half the movie is plagued with songs that don’t feel very natural to this material. Nothing against the likes of Pearl Jam, Lauren Hill, 311, or Incubus… but with the exception of the surfing classic “Wipe Out”, most of these tunes have a very tacked-on feeling. Still, maybe it’s the strength of Danna’s score that makes the rest of the soundtrack feel so weak.

The ribbing of ESPN sports documentaries and the improvised interview sequences add some more unique flavor to the proceedings, making “Surf’s Up” a film that the adults will enjoy as much as the kids. But don’t worry, the kids won’t get bored. They’ll enjoy the silly chicken and all the big surfing sequences and the obligatory jokes about poop and burping and so on. Still, it never feels like “Surf’s Up” is trying too hard to pander to all crowds, like many animated movies seem to do these days. It simply finds a creative way of telling a nice story, and accomplishes that very well, with humor and professionalism. A good watch for the whole family, recommended for all ages.

Rating: ***½

Track Listing:

  • Legends (2:29)
  • Sports Network Presents (1:07)
  • You’re In (2:37)
  • Big Z’s Shrine (0:44)
  • Taking On Tank (1:22)
  • The Geek (1:00)
  • Stuck With This Guy (0:36)
  • I Don’t Have a Way (0:58)
  • Log Roll (0:47)
  • The Board Shack (1:54)
  • Cody Struggles (1:01)
  • Lani and Cody (1:13)
  • Waterfall (1:06)
  • In the Tube (0:56)
  • Training (1:34)
  • The Has Been (0:54)
  • The Big Z Memorial (0:45)
  • First Round (1:04)
  • Shredding (0:56)
  • Winning Is… (1:05)
  • Boneyards (2:37)
  • Losers (0:45)
  • Pointed the Way Back (1:25)

Running Time: 28 minutes 55 seconds

BSX Records BSXCD-8834 (2007)

Music composed by Mychael Danna. Recorded and mixed by Brad Haehnel. Edited by Jen Monnar. Score produced by Mychael Danna.

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