Buena Vista // 2002 // 113 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Patrick Naugle // April 1st, 2003
Based on a true story.
At 19 years old, young John Groberg (Christopher Groham, A Life Less Ordinary) has decided to give up his life to God and become a missionary. His first assignment: three years on the small island of Tonga where he'll spread the word of God to the local villagers. Leaving behind his family and the girl he loves, Jean (Anne Hathaway, The Princess Diaries), John finds himself in a land where English isn't spoken and people are suspicious of his motives. As John settles in for his stint as a messenger of God's word, he meets a young man named Feki (Joe Folau) and the two quickly become friends. Together they brave such hardships as hurricanes, tidal waves, typhoons, mosquitoes, and other perils that make living on an island of paradise a real bear. As the years go by John keeps in touch with Jean and makes her a promise that if and when he returns home, he will make her his bride (if she doesn't marry some guy named Edward first). Through successes and failures, John is able to keep his faith in the Lord strong while teaching the local villagers what it means to be a true child of God.
While we need more films in the vein of The Other Side of Heaven, do they all have to be this banal and sluggish? Based on a true story, The Other Side of Heaven is a film that pleads for conflict, excitement...anything that will force it to move along. Feeling like a made-for-TV movie from 1955, The Other Side of Heaven focuses on one Mormon's attempt to spread the word of God to an island of semi-primitive people. While the premise is interesting, the execution it less than thrilling -- there is a lack of any real peril or complex narrative, leaving the viewer to feel as if he's just watched a two hour infomercial for the Mormon missionaries. The theme of religion is complex and needs a screenplay that is willing to look at both sides of the coin to convey its message. In the vastly superior Dead Man Walking, the true story of Sister Helen Prejean, her walk with a convicted killer and his subsequent salvation in Jesus was explored with depth and conviction. In The Other Side of Heaven, we get a boy spending a few years on an island while trying to bring God's word to the uninitiated. Ho-hum. The problem the film runs into is that there is no conflict for the characters to play off of -- a hurricane and some minor bodily injuries hardly make for an exciting story. Christopher Gorham (a staple on TV's Felicity) receives the dubious task of carrying most of the film on his thin shoulders -- Gorham's all-American good looks and boyish charm make for a bland, often one-note character (the script never gives him any deep struggles or questions to grapple with). Anne Hathaway, a stunning actress who can't seem to find her way out of this kind of sappy fare (think the The Princess Diaries, only without the comedy), shows up for a few scenes, making her role just slightly below supporting. But I'm not completely coldhearted -- I give the film praise for two reasons: 1.) though it's heavy handed, the themes are family friendly and refreshing (abstinence is actually stressed, faith in God is praised, et cetera) and 2.) the cinematography of the island by Brian Breheny is often breathtaking. Many will praise The Other Side of Heaven as being a film that is suitable for the whole family. This is true -- little Bobby, your aunt Polly, and grandpa Fred can all see The Other Side of Heaven without any worry of excessive violence, swearing, or sex. But just because it's clean enough for your grandmother doesn't mean it's going to be an enchanting film experience.
The Other Side of Heaven is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. Once again, Buena Vista has produced a very attractive looking print that sports little in the way of inconsistencies or imperfections. The bulk of this transfer appears to be in excellent shape with colors (there are a lot of them) and black levels appearing solid, dark, and even. While there's a few minor flaws (some edge enhancement pops up from time to time), overall this is a fine looking picture that should please fans. The soundtrack is presented in a very engrossing Dolby Digital 5.1 mix in English. I was surprised at how often this track kicked in -- during even the most quiet scenes you could hear the lapping of the ocean in the rear speakers. Other scenes feature a vast array of surround sounds and directional effects (especially during he hurricane scene). All aspects of the mix are free of excessive hiss or distortion. Also included on this DVD are English subtitles.
Though no one will mistake this disc as a "Vista Series" special edition, Disney has nonetheless tacked on a few extra features for the discerning Mormon fan. Starting off the disc is a short featurette uniquely titled "The Making of The Other Side of Heaven." This is your basic promo feature sporting interviews with cast members Anne Hathaway and Christopher Gorham, writer/director Mitch Davis, the real John Groberg, and others. Everyone discusses at length how much they enjoyed the script, how much they enjoyed each other, how much they enjoyed the scenery...it was apparently a wonderful experience for everyone involved (except the viewer). Next up is a commentary track by Mitch Davis that is actually fairly interesting -- Davis discusses at length stories behind the production of the film, the casting, and what it was like making a movie that is equal parts adventure and equal parts religion. For fans of the film, this will be a nice companion piece to the film. Finally there is a short still gallery with images from the film and behind-the-scenes during the production.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Buena Vista
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Commentary Track by Director/Writer Mitch Davis
* "The Making of The Other Side of Heaven" Featurette
* Still Gallery