Does the name Bethany Hamilton ring a bell? It certainly stuck around with me for a number of years. I remember quite clearly watching the news and hearing about this young girl who loved surfing and even after having her arm bitten off by a shark, she still got back on that board. Bethany’s story is nothing short of inspirational. It should be no surprise that Hollywood would have felt the same way.
Earlier this year FilmDistrict teamed up with TriStar Pictures to release Soul Surfer into theaters. Starring Annasophia Robb, Helen Hunt, Dennis Quaid, Lorraine Nicholason, and Carrie Underwood the film had a somewhat meek showing by most all accounts. Bringing in a decent amount of money in theaters, the movie wasn’t considered a blockbuster by any means. That isn’t necessarily a barometer for quality, however, and today we’re given the Blu-ray release a chance at new life.
Sony Pictures has released Soul Surfer on Blu-ray as a DVD Combo pack. The film features an array of bonus material, which will be discussed later in the review, and sports a decent high definition transfer.
Bethany Hamilton’s story itself is nothing short of incredible. Having grown up half-mermaid, Bethany spent most of her 13 years in the water on a surfboard. Surfing was as much a part of her as her faith in God. One day her world was turned upside down when she was attacked by a shark and lost her left arm. Thanks to some quick reaction from a family friend her life was spared, but recovery after such a traumatic event isn’t exactly something that would be easy. Soul Surfer builds upon this and spends a great deal of time focusing on the character of Bethany and the inner strength that allowed her to get back in the water and overcome adversity.
In the early parts of the film, Soul Surfer sets things up decently enough. Bethany’s life is portrayed in a rosy kind of fashion. An idyllic life on the coasts of Hawaii, a loving family, a closely knit group of church-going friends; Bethany (Annasophia Robb) is a beautiful and talented girl with the world in the palm of her hands. She’s sharing the spotlight with her good friend, Alana (Lorraine Nicholason), and the two manage to seal a sponsorship deal with a major surfing brand after doing well in a competition. Shortly thereafter is when things go south.
Bethany heads out for a surf with Alan’s family near a picturesque reef when tragedy strikes. In an instant a shark pops out of the water, taking her arm and most of her board in the process. Thanks to the quick reactions of Alan’s father (Kevin Sorbo), the family manages to get Bethany back to land and to a hospital. This is around the halfway point and from here on the film deals with Bethany’s recovery and rehabilitation. She struggles for a bit to deal with only having one arm and eventually learns to get back in the water, despite the fears people around her have for her safety.
As a somewhat biographical piece, Soul Surfer does a decent job at capturing the hardships that Bethany endured. The film doesn’t necessarily balance all the pieces of the puzzle well enough, but the set up coupled with the inevitable tragedy do pack a dramatic punch. The spirituality angle can be a bit heavy-handed and there are moments included here that simply don’t do the narrative any favors, like the missionary trip to Thailand. The film also spends too much time at the beginning leaving one guessing when the shark attack will happen. Jaws-like underwater shots foreshadow the coming attack, but the eventual incident feels weakened by this effort.
Overall Soul Surfer is a family friendly kind of picture. It presents an uplifting story set around a singular tragedy that’s decently acted. The occasionally hammy script is kept in check for the most part and the dramatic highs and lows are more subdued than they should have been as the film plays it safe, but it’s ultimately satisfying. Consider Soul Surfer a recommended film for family night.
In terms of Soul Surfer‘s presentation on Blu-ray, the film looks quite good with its full 1080p high definition transfer with AVC codec. The movie comes with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio. As far as detail is concerned there’s plenty to look at here. From skin tones to fabric and even the foamy, clapping waves of the ocean, Soul Surfer has plenty of eye-candy. The details are crisp and sharp throughout, and the pallet is vibrant with some stunning contrast. Occasionally the sun washes out the colors and shadows, but it hardly detracts from the otherwise stellar presentation. The DVD that’s included with this release isn’t bad either, even though the details are a little softer and there’s some inherent grain in the darker scenes.
For audio quality Soul Surfer once again hits some good marks all around with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track for English (French and Portuguese are included as well). The soundstage comes to life as Bethany goes into the water and beyond. While dialogue is mostly front-centric, the rush of water, murmurs and cheers from the crowd, and the atmosphere of Hawaii find a happy home on the rear channels and beyond. Directionality is wonderful and though there’s not much here in terms of LFE presence, the mix elevates the material.
The aforementioned bonus features on this release include a few minutes worth of deleted scenes and three behind the scenes features. There’s a glossed over making of featurette, a look at the surfing in the film, and a piece about the relationship formed between Annasophia Robb and Bethany Hamilton as she practiced for the role. The final two features, “Heart of a Soul Surfer” and “Bethany Hamilton on Professional Surfing” both focus on the real life Bethany. “Heart” is the better of the two as it’s a documentary from a few years ago with plenty of interviews and discussion of the event and subsequent recovery.
Ultimately the Blu-ray/DVD Combo release for Soul Surfer is a success. The range of that success doesn’t extend much beyond its target audience, but then again it doesn’t have to. This is an uplifting story about a young girl’s life at a pivotal moment. It’s handled deftly enough, even if it’s a little long-winded and preachy, but overall it’s a worthwhile film to watch. Again, consider this release recommended.