As faith-based films go, Soul Surfer is unusally palatable. It's true that no given ten minutes go by without at least one reference to God, but it's also true that Bethany Hamilton—the surfer on whose inspirational story the film is based—credits much of her strength to God's presence in her life. Soul Surfer skews toward the preachy, but at least it does so with a bit more subtlety than movies like Fireproof and To Save a Life. Someone invested in some big-time cast (Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid) and crew (cinematographer John R. Leonetti and composer Marco Beltrami) so that this one could compete in the majors.
Sadnding down the real Bethany Hamilton's endearingly dorky edges, AnnaSophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) plays the teen surfer whose near-death experience at the jaws of a shark leaves her questioning her faith, her capacity for happiness, and her assumption that competitive surfing will lead to her going pro. Since the shark devours most of her left arm, Bethany must relearn how to do everything, and it's not at all clear that surfing—especially competitive surfing—will be possible. It's a major test of patience, commitment and, of course, faith, so it's lucky that Bethany is surrounded by an incredibly supportive and cheery family of die-hard surfers: mother Cheri (Hunt), father Tom (Quaid), and brothers Noah (Ross Thomas) and Timmy (Chris Brochu). Her moral support network also includes best friend and fellow competitive surfer Alana Blanchard (Lorraine Nicholson), her father Holt (Kevin Sorbo) and brother Byron (Jeremy Sumpter); surgeon Dr. Rovinksy (Craig T. Nelson); and church counselor Sarah Hill (Carrie Underwood, making like a Stepford Wife in her film debut).
Based on Hamilton's book (co-written with Sheryl Berk and Rick Bundschuh), the film never strays far from the theme that God has a plan: this one just happens to involve a terrifying shark attack, played out in an emotionally harrowing sequence that gets the movie to its "PG" rating. Prayer and trust in Him are constants ("If you have faith, anything is possible. Anything at all"). As the loving parents, Hunt radiates concern and Quaid good vibes, but it becomes a bit wearing that everyone in the picture is such a good role model (okay, Bethany and Alana sneak out to go night surfing, but puh-leeze...). The four screenwriters position surfer Malina Birch (Sonya Balmores) as a semi-bitchy rival to the hero, but as Bethany continually points out, she's thankful that Malina never treats her as handicapped. With a sunny lack of self-awareness, the film eventually reverses this stance to have Malina share an with Bethany an award that she hasn't technically earned. The film also serially abuses the media until it's convenient to embrace them and includes the dubious sentiment from Bethany "I didn't come [to this competition] to win; I came to surf."
Christian church youth groups and faithful families will appreciate the picture, which—though simplistic—offers can-do inspiration. To the picture's credit, there's a mid-film turning point that generates genuine suspense as to whether or not Hamilton should continue to surf, given that there are many other ways Hamilton can contribute to the world around her. One way is to go on missions of service, which Bethany once put off to focus on her surfing. When she finally makes such a trip, to Thailand after a tsunami, she discovers surfing and service aren't mutually exclusive. With its sports-movie structure and Hollywood production values, Soul Surfer is a creditable crossover picture; it just could've done with more nuance.
Sony's Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack of Soul Surfer features outstanding A/V and a number of bonus features. The picture quality is gorgeous, with crystal clarity, brilliantly bold color, and a razor-sharpness totally absent of compression artifacts. The reference-quality video is complemented by a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix that delivers clear dialogue and impressive immersion, even when the film takes us inside a wave.
Eight "Deleted Scenes" (3:49, HD) comprise "Bethany and Sarah Discuss Mexico Trip," "Reporter Tries to Get Statement," "Tom and Cheri Grapple with Bethany's Situation," "Ben Gives Bethany Advice," "Timmy Encourages Bethany," "Noah Protects Bethany from Reporters," "Girl Longing for Lost Family," and "Bethany and Alana Joke About Malina."
"The Making of Soul Surfer" (12:47, HD) quickly surveys the film's true basis and process of adaptation (including consultation with the real-life players), cast, special effects, and location shooting, through behind-the-scenes footage and cast and crew interviews.
"Surfing for the Screen: Inside the Action" (5:28, HD) relates how the Hamilton family participated in getting the surfing sequences right.
"Becoming Bethany" (3:42, HD) focuses in on AnnaSophia Robb.
The doc "Heart of a Soul Surfer" (30:31, SD) takes another look at Hamilton's true story and Christian faith.
Lastly, "Bethany Hamilton on Professional Surfing" (4:54, HD) is a brief, nifty, and self-explanatory featurette.
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