The condemned: Surf’s Up 2: WaveMania (2017)
The plot: Was the world clamoring for a decade-late sequel to Surf’s Up, the mid-2000s animated movie about penguins doing non-penguin things that wasn’t produced and co-directed by George Miller? Perhaps not. But what about a sequel that mostly ditches the one novel thing about Surf’s Up—the fact that it was an animated mockumentary—but adds a quartet of pro wrestling stars (plus WWE owner Vince McMahon), all surreally voicing “themselves.” Flightless bird surfers Cody Maverick (Adventure Time’s Jeremy Shada, replacing Shia LaBeouf, who is either too much of an artist or not enough of one to take part in something like this) and Lani (Melissa Sturm, replacing Zooey Deschanel) now quietly run a surfing school for penguin tots, but have their lives turned upside down by the arrival of Cody’s childhood heroes J.C. (John Cena), Hunter (Triple H), The Undertaker (The Undertaker), Paige (Paige), and Vince McMahon (McMahon), who take them… on an adventure to find some treasure? Honestly, the movie involves only a limited amount of surfing. Part of it takes place in a desert.
Over-the-top box copy: “The long-awaited sequel to Surf’s Up.”
The descent: A Brundlefly of cross-branding that hearkens back to the days when the Harlem Globetrotters would guest-star on Scooby-Doo or fight robots on Gilligan’s Island, WaveMania was produced by Sony’s straight-to-video animation arm (also responsible for three Open Season sequels you probably didn’t know existed) and WWE Studios with no involvement from the original creative team, apart from supporting voice cast members Jon Heder and Diedrich Bader. They were “available,” as they say.
The theoretically heavenly talent: Pro wrestling is the kabuki theater of the Rust Belt. But though it’s more demanding both as athletic performance and a highly stylized and ritualized form of entertainment than non-fans might give it credit for being, it isn’t exactly a training ground for film actors. For every Dwayne Johnson, there is, well, basically every other wrestler to ever star in a movie. Still, these are WWE legends (plus the younger, comparatively personality-free Paige) goofing off in voice roles in a direct-to-video kids’ movie about surfing penguins. And while Cena has shown sketch-ready comic timing, he mostly plays the straight man to The Undertaker—whose classic ring persona is sort of like a Richard Stanley character crossed with an angry grandfather clock—and the seventysomething McMahon. The latter is represented here as a humongous otter with a natural cravat of old-man chest hair, and at one point he has a thought-balloon daydream about sucking milk out of the anus of a fish.
The execution: Shockingly watchable. This is far from the WWE’s first go at this type of crossover; several of the featured wrestlers have already met Scooby-Doo in Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery and the Flintstones in The Flintstones & WWE: Stone Age SmackDown, and WaveMania embraces the casual absurdity of the whole enterprise. Unfortunately, this Hanna-Barbera vibe (complete with bizarre food-related humor) also extends to the cut-rate animation.
As a mockumentary, the original Surf’s Up was the rare animated movie made to look like it was mostly filmed with a handheld camera, which was probably too much of a technical challenge to accomplish on a low budget here. Aside from the occasional cut to an interview, WaveMania plays it straight, and its animation style is stilted and vacant, with characters often placed in front of conveniently empty backdrops of sand and blue sky. Director Henry Yu, a longtime storyboard artist making his debut, actually makes decent use of this sparseness in the desert scene, where it fits perfectly. That having been said, the new character designs are largely hideous; more anthropomorphic than the original’s characters, the wrestler-surfer penguins have Hercules-on-steroid physiques, with big muscular arms that terminate unnervingly in pointy flippers instead of hands.
Likelihood it will rise from obscurity: Check back in 20 years, when the next generation of pop culture writers are troubled by unshakable childhood memories of a movie that had close-ups of rippling, veiny penguin abs.
Damnable commentary track or special features? Just the title of the Heder-centric animated featurette “Chicken Joe’s Extreme Slaughter Island Tour” seems inappropriate for children.