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Soul Surfer: Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack Review

Soul Surfer (2011) movie poster Soul Surfer

Theatrical Release: April 8, 2011 / Running Time: 106 Minutes / Rating: PG / Songs List

Director: Sean McNamara / Writers: Sean McNamara, Deborah Schwartz, Douglas Schwartz, Michael Berk (screen story & screenplay); Matt R. Allen, Caleb Wilson, Brad Gann (screen story); Bethany Hamilton, Sheryl Berk, Rick Bundschuh (book)

Cast: AnnaSophia Robb (Bethany Hamilton), Helen Hunt (Cheri Hamilton), Dennis Quaid (Tom Hamilton), Lorraine Nicholson (Alana Blanchard), Kevin Sorbo (Holt Blanchard), Carrie Underwood (Sarah Hill), Ross Thomas (Noah Hamilton), Chris Brochu (Timmy Hamilton), Sonya Balmores Chung (Malina Birch), Jeremy Sumpter (Byron Blanchard), Craig T. Nelson (Dr. Rovinsky), Branscombe Richmond (Ben Alpa), Cody Gomes (Keoki), Titus Kinimaka (Titus)

Buy Soul Surfer from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack Standalone DVD Instant Video

The ever-popular inspirational true sports drama genre gets a new entry in Soul Surfer and, unlike all others, this one hedges on a shark attack. Hawaii teenager Bethany Hamilton (played by Bridge to Terabithia's AnnaSophia Robb) is determined not to give up on her promising surfing career,
even after a shark bites off the entirety of her left arm. The film simply tries to tell the real Ms. Hamilton's story. From its evident classification, you are sure to find it more touching and motivational than surprising, but what's wrong with a bit of feel-good storytelling?

Nothing, if the storytelling is sound, but feel-good movies rarely deliver on that part of the equation. Often, they win over those who don't see many movies and are probably watching on a friend or relative's recommendation. Those who watch a lot of movies, critics and film buffs, are much more likely to notice and disapprove of pandering and emotional manipulation. Even things considered the apex of feel-good cinema, like, for instance, the public-uniting blockbuster The Blind Side, may seem unrefined to seasoned patrons (including yours truly, who would rank it near the bottom of this young century's Best Picture Oscar nominees).

Ain't nothin' horrible gonna happen today. Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) is all smiles as she prepares to take a Halloween surf with her best friend (Lorraine Nicholson) and her family (Jeremy Sumpter, Kevin Sorbo).

Soul Surfer clearly aspires to The Blind Side model, complete with overt Christianity. That is refreshing to see here, but frustratingly so. With an estimated 2.2 billion followers, Christianity is the most populous religion in the world, and as many as 3 out of 4 Americans claim affiliation to it. Why then has it become so rare to find any faith in films, aside from fringe productions that actively seek to prophesy and/or proselytize?

It can easily be argued that in many of the films being made today, there is no place or room for respectful treatment of belief. A case can also be made for the US entertainment industry catering to the two coasts, writing from their experiences there, and ignoring the largely devout heartland between them. At the same time, I feel that many filmmakers may shy from getting theological out of an unfortunate fear of offending people. Religion is one of the world's most heated topics and it's reasonable for those wanting to reach the widest possible audience not to include material that could be deemed disagreeable or render a significant part of the population uncomfortable.

I'm not sure the last concern is valid, though. While it makes sense in theory, when considering the lowest common denominator you want attending your movie, I think the public has shown time and time again that they can handle challenging and potentially controversial material. From a purely business standpoint, plenty of films dealing with the Christian faith have turned healthy profits (including Blind Side, the first Chronicles of Narnia film, Fireproof, and, of course, The Passion of the Christ). Sure, many others have tried and faltered, but the success rate doesn't seem noticeably worse than any other subject matter served regularly.

Bethany's parents Tom (Dennis Quaid) and Cheri (Helen Hunt) cheer her on, as she returns to competition with one less limb but no less determination. Singer Carrie Underwood makes her film debut as church youth group leader Sarah Hill.

Returning to the film at hand, Soul Surfer tackles Christian themes with accomplished actors, solid production values, and not a megachurch but a major Hollywood studio behind it. All of that grants the film polish and respectability that many homegrown, shoestring-budgeted Christian movies lack. With that said, Soul Surfer still suffers from some of the drawbacks common to inspirational and faith-based films. It is sorely lacking in subtlety, remaining on the nose so that every viewer from 7 to 107 can catch every point. Sooner or later, a film about an amputee has to convey the adaptational challenges they face.
But they don't have to do it so cutely, with the family preparing lunch and Bethany struggling to cut things and open packages single-handedly. It's effective enough, but it is all too easy to imagine a Walk Hard-type parody of it.

Though a missed opportunity to give an amputated actor the juiciest role since Harold Russell's Oscar-winning turn in The Best Years of Our Lives, casting AnnaSophia Robb in the lead allows her to add another impressive performance to her strong filmography, this one raising clout and familiarity as her last few projects did not. Also welcoming the exposure are Dennis Quaid (getting more Harrison Ford-like with age) and Helen Hunt, who are both benign in the parental roles, which have them sharing the screen for the first time in nearly thirty years (the last was a brief meeting of a mentally-impaired Mickey Rooney's two young friends/guardians in the 1983 telemovie sequel Bill: On His Own). Lorraine Nicholson, young daughter of Jack Nicholson, acquits herself well as Bethany's best friend. Though lending some heartland credibility and appeal, country singer Carrie Underwood is less comfortable in her first film role.

Inspirational true sports dramas don't usually have or need big visual effects budgets. With a total price tag of $18 million, Soul Surfer was less thrifty than many Christian movies, but not many major Hollywood productions. It needed to stretch that sum and on effects people will notice and quite possibly comment on. First, there is that shark, which in brief appearance and execution isn't far from those trashy Syfy monster movies. How could it not be? Was Dennis Quaid's Jaws 3 role supposed to land the crew a convincing animatronic? A surfing movie can't be expected to deliver high-end CGI or seamless nature footage for a few seconds of screentime. Of greater importance to the film are the abilities to depict Robb as both one-armed and a gifted surfer. The former is adequately achieved, with a green sleeve yielding few distractions. As for the surfing, the film gets by on passable doubles (including Hamilton herself) shot from a distance, some decent close-up effects, and some sporting degree of actor athleticism.

While no blockbuster of Blind Side proportions, Soul Surfer performed quite respectably at the box office, grossing nearly all of its $44 million in America. That mid-level showing was well in the range of sports drama expectations and second only to the CGI penguin comedy Surf's Up among surfing films. The modest budget makes Soul Surfer one of the year's surest box office success stories, even without getting much in the way of overseas distribution. Sony brings this drama home next Tuesday on DVD and in the Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack we review here.

Soul Surfer: Blu-ray + DVD combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

2.40:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
BD: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English, French, Portuguese), Dolby Digital 5.1 (Descriptive Service)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French, Descriptive Video Service)
Subtitles: English, English SDH, French, Spanish; BD-Only: Portuguese
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled in English (BD also in Portuguese)
Release Date: August 2, 2011
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (BD-50 & DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $38.99
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap
Also available in standalone DVD ($30.99 SRP) and on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

Soul Surfer looks and sounds excellent on Blu-ray. It helps that the movie captures the lush sights of Hawaiia's O'ahu and Kaua'i islands. They render the 2.40:1 widescreen a vibrant delight. The picture is about as clean and sharp as 1080p gets, which allows you to scrutinize those visual effects (not all of which pass the test). The 5.1 DTS-HD master audio is also brimming with life, the ocean waves clapping around you from all directions and score and licensed songs flaring appropriately. You don't expect much dynamite from this type of movie, which makes the crisp, consistently exhilarating mix a pleasant surprise.

Though it may not be the primary attraction here, the DVD doesn't get any less than Sony's ample usual care. Watching it, you are not immediately able to identify it as standard definition or strikingly weaker than the Blu-ray, through no fault of the BD. There is distinctly a little less kick to the DVD's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, but it will still please the vast majority of viewers/listeners.

Bethany's older brother Noah (Ross Thomas) appears in two deleted scenes, including this hospital hallway one in which he gets to tell off a reporter for the New York Times. Director/producer/co-writer Sean McNamara, a Disney Channel alumnus, discusses "The Making of 'Soul Surfer.'"

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS and PACKAGING

The Blu-ray's mostly HD extras begin with eight brief deleted scenes (3:57),
which are more like deleted character moments that could have been left in with almost no effect on the film (once Robb's green arm cast is fully erased, anyway).

Three featurettes follow. "The Making of Soul Surfer" (12:47) is as ordinary as that title suggests. Director Sean McNamara, the cast, and Bethany Hamilton talk about the film's journey to be made on location in Hawaii with the Hamilton family's participation. Special attention is paid to the shark sequence and arm removal effects.

"Surfing for the Screen: Inside the Action" (5:25) describes the cast's efforts to surf convincingly, a topic McNamara emphasizes. "Becoming Bethany" (3:40) gathers comments from AnnaSophia Robb and Bethany Hamilton about their time together, with Robb's colleagues also speaking highly of her.

The real Bethany Hamilton demonstrates how she can cut a grapefruit with one hand and two feet in the 2007 documentary "Heart of a Soul Surfer." Get a good, clear, high-definition look at the real Bethany Hamilton surfing in this Rip Curl-sponsored short.

The 2007 documentary "Heart of a Soul Surfer" (30:31, the Blu-ray's only SD item) looks to give us an even more faithful account of Bethany Hamilton's life, with a wealth of home movies and photos, footage from competitions and TV appearances, and family and friend testimonials. This valuable feature, directed by family friend Becky Baumgartner, reveals how true the film remains to the facts, including Hamilton's optimism, humility, and strong religious convictions.

The Rip Curl-sponsored "Bethany Hamilton on Professional Surfing" (4:54) lets the film's real life subject share some thoughts on her calling, but prefers showing her in (mostly slow-motion) action.

The disc's BD-Live section would not load for me, nor would the menu window that ordinarily links to Sony Blu-ray bonus feature excerpts. I would guess they are not active yet, though why that would be so just five days before street date, I don't know.

Gladly, the DVD supplied in this combo pack is the same one sold on its own for just $8 less (just $4 less on Amazon at the time of publication). For reasons I could never understand, Sony has sometimes authored movie-only DVDs for combo packs. This way makes a lot more sense. In another nice move, Soul Surfer's DVD has all of the bonus features from the Blu-ray (minus the not yet functional BD-Live section, obviously, and, for some reason, the Portuguese subtitles). If the materials can fit without compromising the feature presentation, why deprive the DVD-buying public of extras that used to be standard?

Both Blu-ray and DVD open with teasers for Zookeeper and The Smurfs and full trailers for To Save a Life, Courageous, and Of Gods and Men. The same five items play from the menu's "Previews" listing. Katy Perry fans will find the absence of Soul Surfer's own trailer regrettable.

The Blu-ray's menu runs clips in pieces while an excerpt of dramatic Hawaiian chant score plays. The DVD's equivalent screen applies a similar idea, minus music and animation, to the cover/poster/disc pose. The Blu-ray flawlessly supports bookmarks and resumes playback of the film and bonus features.

The two discs are packaged in a standard Blu-ray case, with Sony's standard 3D/make.believe insert covering the colorless DVD. Customary for the studio, the reverse side of the cover shows additional artwork (in this case, a photo of Robb and the real Hamilton) through the translucent case.

Bethany Hamilton (AnnaSophia Robb) loves surfing! With half the arms she used to have, Bethany (AnnaSophia Robb) doesn't hesitate to return to the waves with Alana (Lorraine Nicholson).

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Soul Surfer plays out entirely to your expectations of its "shark bite victim surfer perseveres" premise. There are few surprises and many accessible, neatly-wrapped emotional moments. But while it doesn't look to break the conventions of the true sports drama, the movie at least honors them in an appealing way, with a good lead performance by AnnaSophia Robb going a long way to endear and make us overlook miscalculated and artless bits.

It's tough to find anything wrong with Sony's Blu-ray + DVD combo pack, which provides the same top-notch picture/sound and hearty supply of insightful bonus features on both formats. That, combined with a reasonable list price, may push those who ordinarily rent to consider a purchase, dependent on a taste for inspirational sports movies.

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Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack / DVD / Instant Video

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Soul Surfer Songs List (in order of use): "Mele Hula: E Kuini E Kapi'olani", "Hele On to Kauai", Raymond Padilla - "Morning Song", "Blessed Be Your Name", The DNC - "Fly High", Michael Franti & Spearhead - "The Sound of Sunshine", Natalie Rogers featuring Bethany Hamilton - "Fire Within", Mavin - "Sound of Forever", Steve Winwood - "Gimme Some Lovin'", Travis McCoy - "After Midnight", Britt Nicole - "Like a Star", Two Door Cinema Club - "This is the Life", Bla Pahinui - "Ho'oheno Keia No Beauty", "Old Hilo March", Brian Setzer - "Go-Go Godzilla", Mat Kearney - "Runaway", Francesca Battistell - "It's Your Life", Kasabian - "Underdog", Britt Nicole - "Set the World on Fire", Athlete - "The Unknown"

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Reviewed July 28, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2011 TriStar Pictures, Film District, Mandalay Vision, Brookwell McNamara Entertainment, Enticing
Entertainment, Island Film Group, Affirm Films, Life's a Beach Entertainment, and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.