Revisiting Pen Gu Island: A Surf’s Up Soundtrack Review 

8 min read

Liz Foster ’22

Bits & Pieces Editor

Reggae, charming island tunes, beach-rock, blissful waves, surfing competitions, sunny days, and penguins—where can we find the commonalities? The 2007 Dreamworks film Surf’s Up. Starring Shia LaBeouf as the film’s protagonist, a Rockhopper penguin named Cody Maverick, Surf’s Up is a hero’s journey into self-love, comradery, and the all-encompassing power of surfing. The timeless tale is a criminally underrated film with an even more underrated soundtrack. Though officially titled Surf’s Up Music From The Motion Picture, the album stands alone as a masterful collection of jammy tunes that occasionally wanders into tasteful, soulful reflection.  

Surf’s Up is the story of Cody Maverick and his desire to be a world-renowned professional penguin surfer. He leaves his home in Shiverpool, Antarctica in favor of a pseudo-Hawaii by the name of Pen Gu Island. Pen Gu Island hosts the annual Big Z Memorial Surf Off and Cody, recruited by a silly bird named Mike, is determined to walk away the champion, besting the competition’s usual victor: a bully named Tank Evans. The titular Big Z of the memorial competition is a surfing legend renowned for his talent and kind, laid back attitude. Z is presumed to be dead–until he saves Cody from a crash and becomes his Obi-Wan Kenobi. Cody competes in the memorial competition, nearly wins, but ultimately chooses to save his quirky friend Chicken Joe from a surf-attack by the malicious Tank. Big Z reveals himself to be alive, Chicken Joe wins the Surf Off, and the residents of Pen Gu rejoice. Throughout the entirety of Surf’s Up, music plays an essential role in scoring the triumphs and topples of Cody and his comrades. “Holiday” by Green Day plays as the title screen rolls and the viewer is immediately immersed into the rolling waves of Cody Maverick’s life. We know exactly what we’re working with right from the very start as it begins. 

Days before his being recruited to join the competition, Cody melancholically surfs the dark waves of Antarctica as Incubus’ “Drive” plays. The song foreshadows his arrival at Pen Gu Island with the soulful, promising lyrics that declare: “Whatever tomorrow brings I’ll be there.” The song balances Cody’s doubt and his optimism with its inspiring lyrics and sad production.  

Pearl Jam’s “Big Wave” appears in an aptly placed moment when Cody attempts to prove himself against Tank in an early pre-competition surf off. The song plays as Tank and Cody battle it out on one of their first waves, with Tank falling and Cody receiving a high score from all three surf-competition judges. Pearl Jam scores one of the film’s most iconic scenes: Chicken Joe’s no-paddle drop in. In a film about the glory of surfing and sea, the track is an impeccable fit for a scene starring the song’s titular waves.  

Another Green Day record, “Welcome to Paradise,” blasts while establishing that the island of Pen Gu as one emanating with joyful energy. Cody jams out with leis around his neck, bonding with his competitors, catching waves, and developing his integral friendship with Chicken Joe. Green Day serves as an epic score for Cody’s happiness, serving up banging guitars that only Kerplunk could offer. Cody begins to practice against the menace Tank Evans, returning to the waves of the Pen Gu Bay for countless hours as he expresses his confidence ahead of his appearance in the Surf Off. After Billie Joe Armstrong unleashes his joyful radiance upon glistening waves, Cody unfortunately crashes, leaving him incapacitated and presumably out of the competition.  

Paradise turns to hell, but he is soon rescued by Lani the lifeguard and a large penguin named “Geek.” Geek is actually Cody’s idol Big Z, but the younger penguin is unaware. Cody conveys his new lack of confidence in the wake of his fall, but “Just Say Yes” by Ken Andrews indicates that the penguin may change his mind. Big Z notices Cody’s necklace–a shell engraved with a Z in honor of the surfing legend–and chases after him while the track plays. The soft strings and equally timid vocals tell Cody to “just say yes” to Big Z’s guidance.  

The atmosphere swiftly switches when whimsical jungle-beach music plays and Cody and Big Z work to build the former a surfboard. The instrumentals resemble that of a video game loading screen or a SpongeBob interlude but is nonetheless a fire transition from the depressing vibes that preceded it. Some of the film’s songs lean closer to score than soundtrack, lacking vocals and clearly implemented just to curate the film’s effortlessly cool, casual vibe. The silly tropical tunes permeate throughout the film with cartoon-ish sound effects that remind you that you are, in fact, watching a children’s film.  

Continuing the ludicrous theme, we see Chicken Joe be thrust into a pot of water and left to become a stew for a tribe of “Pen Guans.” What does the audience hear as Joe’s life is at risk? “What I Like About You” by The Romantics. The song calls to mind another 2000s Dreamworks production: Shrek. Though quite different, the films’ sharing of this timeless track showcases how well the studio can pull together a cohesive score.  

Surf’s Up continues to flip flop thematically, alternating between Cody being sad and Cody being hopeful. Yet each time, a pertinent song plays.  When Mr. Maverick builds a surfboard for himself, the audience indulges in “Stand Tall” by the Dirty Heads. The song is filled with oceanic imagery, groovy guitars and drums, creating an identical energy to our protagonist’s actions. 

Sugar Ray, the iconic California alt-rock-new-wave-reggae band, make an appearance with “Into Yesterday.” The song was plucked from the Sugar Ray archives for the Surf’s Up soundtrack following the band’s relatively inactive period in the latter half of the 2000s. Though not explicitly a reference to penguin surfing, Mark McGrath sings “Like the ocean needs the moon to take the tides away/All we need’s a little time to chase the blues away” as though he wrote the song to depict Cody’s passionate relationship with surfing. Big Z returns to surfing for the first time in years, telling Lani “Thank you” before the two swim out to catch waves with Cody. The vibes are exquisite as the penguins carve out beautiful turquoise waves. As a stunning sunset sinks behind the horizon, the song fades out with a soft croon of “Let this last forever, and turn tomorrow back to yesterday,” before cutting into Big Z himself playing the ukulele.  

“Pocket Full of Stars” by Nine Black Alps is one of the album’s more heartfelt songs, but nonetheless maintains the soundtrack’s consistent island-sound. In a soft voice, lead singer Sam Forrest laments, “Now you know I need a miracle/ A star cross lover, an arrow in my heart/I need a rainy day in an endless summer/A pocket full of stars.” The song is another aptly placed ballad that indicates the strength of the soundtrack, curating a mood that lowers the vibe of the audience before allowing it to ricochet into more high energy tracks.  

As the vibrations rise in one of the film’s most pivotal moments, “You Get What You Want Plays” appears to close out the story. Chicken Joe, saved by Cody in a moment of dire need, wins the Surf Off. Cody recounts his amazing time on Pen Gu Island while calling Z the best friend he’s ever had, running off to catch another wave before the final scene kicks in. “Don’t give up” sings Gregg Alexander as we see Big Z catching waves, feeling the power of surfing from outside of the film’s lens.  

The soundtrack’s opening is also the film’s final song: “Reggae Got Soul.” Performed by the Nebraska-based group 311, the song repeats that “Reggae got soul” and that this soul is inside of everybody–including the penguins of Pen Gu Island. The song references that Cody, Chicken Joe, Lani, and Biz Z all have soul, starting off the Surf’s Up narrative with an upbeat, classic reggae sound. It’s one of few tracks that actually references the film and its starring characters, making it a quirky that’s explicitly unique to Surf’s Up.  

The job of a soundtrack is to be applicable, cohesive, and relevant to its film’s core. The Surf’s Up soundtrack is a delicious complement to the movie itself. The energy curated by the soundtrack’s miscellaneous vibes is enough to tell the story on its own. Most often straddling the line of reggae and soft alt-rock, Surf’s Up Music from the Motion Picture forms a delicious compilation of feel-good tunes that transport you to the unique sonic landscape of Pen Gu Island with each and every listen. Long live Big Z.  

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