Judge Clark Douglas is more of a soul row boater.
Our review of Soul Surfer, published August 28th, 2011, is also available.
The incredible true story of Bethany Hamilton.
"How soon can I get back in the water?"
Facts of the Case
Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb, Bridge to Terabithia) is a teenage girl madly in love with surfing. Her father (Dennis Quaid, The Rookie) and mother (Helen Hunt, As Good As It Gets) have been diehard surfers their entire lives, so it's only natural that Bethany is following in their footsteps. She has ambitions of being a professional surfer someday, and certainly seems to have the talent to get there. Suddenly, tragedy strikes: Bethany's arm is bitten off by a shark. Miraculously, she survives the attack, but Bethany has no interest in merely continuing to survive. She is determined to get back in the water and continue surfing despite her condition. Will Bethany succeed?
Yes, she will succeed. If you think that's a spoiler, you either somehow missed a widely publicized news story or you didn't read the back of the Blu-ray case. It reads as follows:
"Soul Surfer is the incredible true story of teen surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her arm in a shark attack and courageously overcame all odds to become a champion again through her sheer determination and unwavering faith."
But of course, it's all about the journey, right? Along the way to the end credits of Soul Surfer, we witness bitterness, anger, spite, nightmares, and sadness. Surprisingly, most of this comes from Bethany's friends and family rather than from Bethany herself. She is almost eerily resilient, refusing to scream after her arm is bitten off by a shark and springing back to her version of ordinary life with remarkable speed. Sure, there are complications, setbacks, and frustrations, but Bethany never really permits herself to become overwhelmed by these. Some critics have suggested that this makes her a dull protagonist in an uneventful movie, but I find her demeanor intriguing. While I don't personally know anyone whose arm has been bitten off by a shark, I've certainly met a few people who seem to casually dismiss all kinds of adversity and continue through life with an unflappable serenity.
That's not to say that Soul Surfer is a complete success, as it certainly succumbs to a wide variety of inspirational movie conventions. It should be noted upfront that Soul Surfer is an unapologetically Christian film, from its opening-credits church sing-a-long to its closing credits acknowledgment of Jesus. It's several notches above the sort of groan-inducing Christian fare produced by folks like Alex Kendrick ("If you really love Jesus, you can kick fifty-yard field goals with ease!"), and generally manages to get its messages across in a less obtrusive manner than you might expect. Even so, the film's least interesting scenes are those in which Bethany engages in sessions of spiritually-themed lesson-learning with her church youth minister (played by a very earnest Carrie Underwood, making her acting debut). On a non-religious level, I think we could have done without the inclusion of the lame boyfriend-type figure (Cody Gomes) and the equally ho-hum Evil Surfing Rival (Sonya Balmores).
However, the film is surprisingly involving when it deals with the surfing material. Director Sean McNamara shows a real flair when it comes to the technical side of staging these scenes, and manages to wring a lot of suspense out of the various competitions Bethany participates in. The shark attack is also very effectively handled; somehow made more unnerving by the strikingly non-graphic manner in which it is staged. AnnaSophia Robb proves capable of carrying the film; making Bethany engaging and believable despite her somewhat enigmatic nature. It's also nice to see a Christian film with folks like Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, and Craig T. Nelson (very appealing in a handful of scenes as Bethany's doctor) filling out the supporting cast rather than the usual motley crew of available C-listers.
Soul Surfer rides onto Blu-ray sporting a very attractive 1080p/2.40:1 transfer. One of the film's biggest selling points is its gorgeous presentation of the surfing sequences, which just about pop off the screen with vibrant colors and eye-popping detail. Flesh tones are warm and natural, blacks are rich and inky and the color palette is cheerful yet soothing. The audio is also superb, particularly during the surfing sequences (the crashing waves sound spectacular as they whoosh through your speaker system). Special mention should also be made of an exceptional score by Marco Beltrami, who brings some marvelous thematic ideas and instrumental riffs to the table. That's particularly noteworthy when you consider how generically uplifting inspirational movie scores tend to be. Supplements include a making-of documentary ("Heart of a Soul Surfer"), three making-of featurettes ("Becoming Bethany," "Soul Surfing Into Action," and "Surfing Onto the Screen"), a brief piece featuring Hamilton herself ("Bethany Hamilton on Professional Surfing"), some deleted scenes, a DVD copy, and BD-live.
Soul Surfer runs into rocky territory on occasion, but manages to work despite its flaws thanks to sturdy acting and some exceptional surfing sequences. The Blu-ray looks gorgeous and sounds spectacular. If you see this film, see it in hi-def.
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