First penguins marched across snowy icecaps in March of the Penguins. Then they donned dancing shoes in Happy Feet. Now the slippery tuxedo-coated birds are hitting the waves in a bid for the high definition trifecta in Sony Animation Studio’s Surf’s Up, the first penguin-filled release exclusive in high definition to Blu-ray Disc.
Surf’s Up is simultaneously a completely unoriginal and groundbreaking film. Anyone who has enjoyed Disney and Pixar’s Cars will find countless similarities between the two films: an arrogant young athlete yearning to become a champ (voiced energetically by Shia LaBeouf), a former champ hiding in seclusion who must face his past (the Dude! I mean Big Z, voiced by the king of slumming, Jeff Bridges), a host of comic relief sidekicks, and a moral message preaching winning, of course, isn’t everything. Arguably Cars tells a stronger version of this story with Pixar’s writing geniuses and lengthier runtime, but Surf’s Up is no slouch and far more endearing, and likewise slower moving, than its advertising suggests.
What differentiates Surf’s Up from every CGI film before it was a creative stroke of genius to develop a proprietary method of using a live-action camera to film inside of a CG-world. This technique allowed the directors to shoot the entire film from the perspective of a camera crew following Cody, the young surfing prodigy. The action happens first and the camera follows suit, in many cases a split second or two behind. A plethora of gags combined with the voyeuristic camera lends a unique mockumentary feel across the board.
The decision to shoot Surf’s Up from a documentary perspective led the filmmakers to pursue visual realism, thus every scene has a varying degree of artificial film grain layered on it. First time viewers seeking a crystal clear 1080p presentation with no flaws will be gravely disappointed, especially during a handful of dimly lit night sequences where digital grain dances on the screen. However, the digital-to-digital transfer as the filmmakers intended is effectively near-perfect ala Sony’s last animation Blu-ray release, Monster House. I’d even give the edge to Surf’s Up solely on the breathtakingly gorgeous photo-realistic water and wave animations, intentional faux grain or not.
While some studios that shall not be named are struggling to find consistency with incorporating lossless audio tracks onto their high definition titles, Sony has included not one, but two on Surf’s Up. Both a PCM 5.1 and Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix are deep and enveloping, most notably during a brief underground excursion and any scene involving large crashing waves. Multiple switching back and forth between each track gives a slight edge to Dolby TrueHD 5.1 for a hair more depth, though they are too similar to my ear to make anything other than a subjective assumption.
Remember the Chubbchubbs? Their original hilarious short is back on Surf’s Up in full 1080p video, along with a lesser and entirely forgettable follow-up effort, The Chubbchubbs Save Xmas. In fact, all the extra features on Surf’s Up are presented in full 1080p high definition.
The clearest insight into building Surf’s Up from the ground up is found spread across four Featurettes covering everything from intimate voice sessions to creating the waves to the ins and outs of filming inside a virtual world. An extension of the featurettes” teachings can be listened to during a pair of Feature-Length Audio Commentaries, one from the filmmakers and a one from the visual effects artists. Missing is a commentary with Shia LaBeouf and Jeff Bridges, though they do get their two cents in during the voice sessions.
Also included is a quartet of Lost scenes w/optional Filmmaker Introductions, three of which are in storyboard form and the fourth as an ad-libbed performance from a voice session. Smaller distractions are an interactive Surf’s Up Pinball Game, Progression Reels featuring visual effects breakdowns of complex scenes, Photo Galleries, a Lose Myself Music Video by Lauryn Hill, and a brief Teaser Trailer for the direct-to-video (and Blu-ray?) sequel Open Season 2.
Surf’s Up is a solid high definition release for anyone who can look past the filmmakers artistic decision to lace every frame with artificial CGI grain as a service to the story. The animation, particularly water physics, is stunning, and the characters are voiced with energy and believable personality. A boatload of high definition extras along with a pair of pounding lossless audio tracks round out a compelling and worth checking out Blu-ray package.
– Dan Bradley