Sony // 2011 // 106 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Jake Ware (Retired) // August 28th, 2011
I don't need easy. I just need possible.
If the above positive affirmation rings true to you, and if you'd like to hear it repeated in a variety of ways over and over again, then tune into Soul Surfer.
Bethany Hamilton is a 13 year old, carefree surfer girl from Hawaii with dreams of going pro. She's part of a loving surfer family with a couple of brothers and dream parents who are down with the kids. However, one day while out surfing with her best friend, Bethany is attacked by a tiger shark. Despite losing her left arm and a large percentage of blood, she miraculously survives the attack and goes on to not only compete on the women's pro surfing tour, but also become an inspirational figure and an advocate of Christianity.
Soul Surfer tells the true story of a young woman who pulled through a trauma that would leave most people permanently damaged. Not only that, she used this new circumstance to give her life direction and meaning. It's an inspirational story and those kinds of stories are always welcome. The problem is it presents this message in a by-the-numbers manner we've all seen before. The story and its characters are painted in such unrealistic and Hollywood colours that the whole "based on a true story" sentiment is a bit of a farce.
As much as I admire Bethany and am inspired by her story, I was neither moved nor wowed by Soul Surfer. Rather, I found it clichéd to the hilt, a one dimensional portrayal of this young woman's tragic accident as the seed of a feel good inspiration fest. I'm as much of a sucker for inspirational movies as the next guy, but having positive messages relentlessly crammed down my throat is as unwelcome as downer films that revel in how cruel and hopeless the world can be.
As much as I like Bethany's story, I cannot recommend Soul Surfer to anyone over the age of 13. This is a film riddled with clichés and hackneyed plot contrivances. There are indications of problems as early as the opening credits when seven people are credited with the story and four with its screenplay. That sounds very much like writing by committee, usually a recipe for disaster. And the film plays out pretty much as you'd expect; there isn't a moment of surprise nor anything that jumps off the screen as original. Instead, we get a series of plot points delivered as if the writers were ticking off a grocery list. For example, the film includes hints at a love interest, even though there is simply no need for one. The story also offers a forced villain by introducing a surfing competitor who's also a real bitch. This opens a whole other cliché and a completely unnecessary plot device that does little more than distract. It's only through some fine acting that our attention is drawn away from the poor writing.
The performances are mostly high calibre. AnnaSophia Robb (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) has a difficult job, as the success or failure of the film rests on her shoulders. I'm not familiar with this young actress' previous work, but as Bethany I found her both believable and likable. The real strength of Soul Surfer, however, is in its supporting cast. Dennis Quaid (Far From Heaven) and Helen Hunt (As Good As It Gets) are such seasoned actors that their mere presence adds the aura of a big budget and high production value. While both actors have been far more impressive in other films, their work here is steady and welcome. Kevin Sorbo (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) is equally watchable as the laid back and supportive father of Bethany's best friend, as is country pop singer Carrie Underwood who makes her acting debut as Bethany's church leader. The least successful is Craig T. Nelson (Parenthood), who is all but wasted in a brief cameo role. I cannot imagine why he was involved other than as a favour, or as a means of getting a free trip to Hawaii.
Sean McNamara's (Bratz) direction is competent, if uninspired. For instance, once Bethany's arm heals and she decides to get back into competitive surfing, we are treated to a Rocky-like training montage, complete with one armed push-ups. I was amazed it was not underscored by Eye Of The Tiger. Speaking of music, Some of Soul Surfer's worst crimes come from the soundtrack department. It would seem that a surfer's life is punctuated by cute teeny bopper guitar music as the film contains an almost wall to wall high energy soundtrack that fans of Busted and McFly would love, but that the rest of the world simply should not be subjected to. There are no quiet moments and no sequence in the film is allowed to exist without the interference of some really upbeat pop music, most of it of the inspirational kind. The real crime is that some of composer Marco Beltrami's score is really quite nice, but it always comes second to the unending stream of sickly sweet pop.
On a more positive note, as a fan of the genre, I was impressed with Soul Surfer's visuals. Renowned surf cinematographer Don King was involved in shooting the surfing sequences and it shows. Crisp, exciting, and quite beautiful at times, there are a few amazing rides and some of the underwater footage is spectacular. Also, the CGI work is a fine example of the possibilities this technology holds for today's filmmakers. Used sparingly and as part of a greater filmmaking toolkit, the film's 750 visual effects shots fit almost seamlessly into the final film.
Soul Surfer arrives DVD with a nice 2:40 anamorphic transfer. The images are sharp and the colours vivid. Likewise, the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack is well executed and the mix really comes to life during the surfing sequences. The disc also comes with a fair collection of extras. Included are three behind-the scenes-featurettes that are short on depth, but offer a nice overview of the production. We also get some deleted scenes that were wisely omitted from the final cut and a short featurette called Bethany On Surfing which is essentially a collection of surfing clips and acts as a promotional video for a well-known surf gear company. The highlight of the bonus features is Heart Of A Soul Surfer, a 30-minute documentary about Bethany made in 2007. Although it's clear the film follows Bethany's agenda to spread the Christian message, it captures the spirit of Bethany and her family and the importance of surfing and Christianity in their lives.
Soul Surfer is a film with a big MESSAGE, or -- put more accurately -- MESSAGES. Be it caring for your fellow man, the importance of getting back on the horse after falling off, the value of competing, or that there is no substitute for family and love, the film delivers good Christian messages with strength of a sledge hammer. If you don't like being preached to in the privacy of your own home, approach Soul Surfer with caution.
You know, for kids.
Review content copyright © 2011 Jake Ware; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English, Descriptive)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
Running Time: 106 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes