Surf’s Up (2007)

Rated PG. Our ratings: V- 2; L- 0; S/N -2. Running time: 1 hour 25 min.

For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
Mark 8:36

Bet you didn’t know that penguins invented the sport of surfing, did you? The record is set straight in the new “mockumentary” by directors Ash Brannon and Chris Buck (they also are part of the team of writers). The documentary structure is the freshest part of what could have been just “another penguin film,” the film also including a take-off on ESPN. Those who love the gentle spoofs of Christopher Guest will enjoy this little animated morality tale as well.

Cody Maverick (Shia LaBeouf), a Rockhopper penguin, leaves his doubting family and friends in Shiverpool, Antarctica to travel to the tropical island where the Penguin World Surfing Championship is being held. His idol is the late Big Z, regarded as the greatest surfing penguin ever to have rode a wave. Cody had briefly met Big Z once, and always thereafter wore the seashell pendant marked by a Z that the celebrity had given out to admirers. That there is another penguin film is cleverly hinted at when the documentary film crew asks Cody if he has any other skills, and the young penguin answers, “What, like singing and dancing?”

There are no air or ship tours for penguins desiring to travel, but there is a whale, upon which Cody hitches a ride. He meets and befriends fellow passenger Chicken Joe (Jon Heder), also traveling to the world surfing tournament—he is from that great surfing state of Wisconsin. At their destination they encounter the arrogant penguin Tank Evans (Diedrich Bader), nine-time winner, and expected to win again. Undeterred by the huge Tank, Cody is overly self-confident, and so his trial run ends in disaster when he loses control trying to ride a huge wave and is knocked under. Lifeguard Lani Aliikai (Zooey Deschanel) rescues him and brings him to her Uncle Geek’s secluded jungle hideaway to nurse him back to health. Then it is that he discovers that Geek is actually Big Z (Jeff Bridges), very much alive, having faked his death for—well, go and find out. Taking a liking to Cody, Big Z teaches the younger penguin his secrets of championship surfing.

You can guess the rest of the story, though not totally, as there is a nice twist to the ending that ties in with the moral lesson that both Cody and Big Z learn. A nice family film with delightful animation—the vintage scenes on the sports channel covering the contests, showing past penguin surfing champions, are delightful, and some of the shots of waves and sunlit skies are beautiful. A good film for adults to explore with children our sports-dominated culture’s emphasis upon winning at all costs.

For Reflection/Discussion

The following are mainly for use with children. Might include spoilers.

1) What character did you like best in the movie? What do you like best about him/her? What character did you like least? Why?

2) Cody has a big brother, Glen Maverick: what does he say about his little brother? How does he behave like so many brothers when a brother or sister is better at something than he is?

3) Why did Big Z pretend to die and then go into hiding from people? What does he need to learn about facing defeat? How does he learn this while helping Cody? Big Z and Cody talk surfing.

4) What does Cody believe about winning? Do you see this in the coaches and players of teams that you know about? Are you a member of one? How can wanting too much to win spoil a game? A person?

5) What does Cody learn is the most important thing? How is a friendship one of the most valuable things you can have? How does the story of Cody and Tank show that in a friendship both people gain a lot? What have your friends meant to you? How have you been a good friend to others—that is, what have you done for them when they needed you?