The problem with reviewing a "based on a true story" movie like 'Soul Surfer' is that if you don't like it, then somehow you are a heartless bastard who doesn't feel for the real-life person who went through such an ordeal. It's a hard situation to be in, because you don't want to sound insensitive to something so horrific and rain on a true-to-life inspirational story. The problem with 'Soul Surfer' is that it takes the true story of Bethany Hamilton, chops it up into easily consumable bite-sized pieces fit for the Disney Channel crowd, and then serves it to us on a plate full of surfing montages.
The real Bethany Hamilton grew up in Hawaii and was (and still is) a promising young surfer. She was on her way to easily win the regional contest and go on to bigger and better things. Surfing was her life. She spent every waking moment training for her big surfing competitions. That is, until the fateful day where she was suddenly attacked by a shark that bit right through her arm tearing it from her body. It was so sudden and so unexpected that no one was quite sure what had happened. One minute your arm's there, then the next minute it's gone. Now what does a surfer do without one arm? Bethany's story graced every newspaper in a America. She did the talk show circuit, talking about her faith in God, and how she was able to overcome the tragic event. It was only a matter of time before someone made a movie about Bethany's story. Instead of mirroring a gritty true-life overcoming-the-odds story like we had with '127 Hours' director Sean McNamara ('Bratz: The Movie') takes the story and gives it a nice shiny candy coating. It's no longer a inspirational story of overcoming insurmountable odds and doing the impossible, it's now a movie tailored specifically to the teeny bopper crowd, filled with mindless montages of surfing set to pop music.
'Soul Surfer' does have its moments. The shark attack is genuinely terrifying and is, in so many ways, scarier than another shark movie I just reviewed called 'The Reef.' When sharks attack humans they usually do so as a one-off, exploratory bite, instead of consciously stalking them and picking them off one by one. Seeing how a real shark attack may have taken place and watching the horror on faces as they realize what has just happened, it's truly frightening. The ensuing rush to the ambulance and drive to the hospital are intense and well put together. If only the movie stuck more to the dramatic and less to the surfing stock footage.
AnnaSophia Robb ('Race to Witch Mountain') takes on the task of playing Bethany. She's a precocious youngster who lives to surf. She has a deep, abiding faith in Jesus Christ, and now she's missing an arm. Robb does a great job at conveying the heartache that must come along after such a senseless tragedy. Her faith is questioned and she wonders why God would let this happen to her. It's really too bad that Robb is then surrounded by young actors who couldn't emote if it was their job (wait it is). That includes newcomer to the screen, country singer Carrie Underwood, who is asked to carry scenes which are emotionally over her head. Helen Hunt and Dennis Quaid, as Bethany's parents, give the movie some sort of solid ground to tread on. Everyone else around them feels like they were placed there because they were either a.) a famous surfer looking for a cameo or b.) a Hawaiian local who was cast because he, well, looks Hawaiian. It's a shame that these spot-on performances are dragged down by supporting actors that have no business sharing the same screen time.
'Soul Surfer' does a few things right, but gets a lot of things wrong. It's tone is all over the place, and music swells in just the right places as if its prodding you to cry. It doesn't so much guide you through the story of Bethany Hamilton as it does shove you in whether you like it or not. Sean McNamara simply wasn't the right director for this project. It needed someone who could extract the truly emotional pieces of the story instead of relying on montage after montage. Bethany Hamilton deserved better.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Soul Surfer' comes to Blu-ray in a Sony Combo Pack containing the DVD and Blu-ray copies of the movie. The Blu-ray is housed on a 50GB Dual Layer disc and has been packaged in a standard Blu-ray case.
As you may have guessed 'Soul Surfer' is bathed in sun-drenched visuals from start to finish. The entire movie was shot on-location in Hawaii and as a result the movie looks great. Most every scene is well lit featuring heavy amounts of detail. Tanned skintones look natural and never take on phony reddish tints.
Colors here are marvelously represented, from the shimmering ocean blues to the subtly yellowed sands. Pinks, greens, and reds also flourish as the movie is meant to look bright and vivid. Blacks are nicely presented. There's a scene where Bethany goes out night surfing with her friends that has perfectly delineated shadows and a nice amount of detail even through it’s a low-light situation.
If there's one drawback to 'Soul Surfer's presentation it's that, at times, the CG removal of AnnaSophia Robb's arm is painfully obvious. There are close ups where you can easily tell what is real and what looks inserted by computer. With the high definition it's easy to point out the times where Robb's clothing looks cartoony and moves unnaturally. The only other complaint I have is that some of the stock surfing footage varies in quality compared to the principal photography. Other than those two minor nitpicks, Sony has given 'Soul Surfer' a sunny and cheery high definition transfer that will wow more than disappoint.
I wasn't all that impressed with 'Soul Surfer's DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track. It's not that it has any glaring problems or missteps (except for a scene where Bethany and a close guy friend are walking on the beach and his ADR is completely un-synched with his lips). It's just that the sound design, overall, is geared more towards focusing on pop music for surfing montages rather than the movie at hand.
The bubblegum rock blasts through the channels whenever we have another competition. It becomes tedious to say the least. Announcer voices echo nicely, reverberating through the soundfield just like they would if you were sitting there on the beach. Surrounds are alive with action especially when Bethany or her friend enter the tunnel of a wave that encircles them. Cheering crowds can be heard in the rear channels rooting Bethany and the other surfers on.
Dialogue is always intelligible, but is somewhat undermined by the profuse use of teeny-bopper musak. Directionality works well whether it's a phone ringing off screen or screams of frantic friends trying to get Bethany back to shore after the attack. Like I said, there's nothing technically amiss with this audio presentation, but its overall design seems as candy coated and mass produced as the movie itself.
The problem with 'Soul Surfer' is that it truly is a real-life inspirational tale that seems to have been dumbed down for a mass market release. The inclusion of people like Carrie Underwood and slew of other actors that just can't act, really undermines the acting from Robb, Hunt, and Quaid. The addition of a heartless rival to make Bethany feel even more sympathetic is an example of how low this movie stoops for tears and sympathy. It has a few touching moments – like when Quaid and Robb are given some alone time – and the shark attack and aftermath is especially horrifying. Besides that though, you'll feel like you stumbled onto a Disney Channel special instead of a truly harrowing real-life biopic. Give it a rent if you're interested.