Soul Surfer — better than some biopics this year, but still misses some waves.


An inspiring story of an inspiring young lady, but once again, doesn’t really inspire as a film.
Its better than earlier true life dramas released this year (5th Quarter, and to a degree, Sanctum), but it falls into some cliched traps that don’t allow it to move the audience. The story is a young girl, Bethany Hamilton, positioned to be a surfing champion, gets her arm bitten off by a shark off the beaches of Hawaii.  Then she struggles to overcome all odds.

Unlike 5th Quarter, director Sean McNamara gives us more time to meet the characters and get to know them a bit before throwing them into turmoil.  What he doesn’t do is establish that there are sharks in the water, and that this poses a risk to surfers.  So the shark attack comes totally out of nowhere, and is so ridiculously realized with a CG shark that in this moment where you should gasp in horror, you find yourself guffawing.

Another mark they miss is that after the attack, Bethany is rip roarin’ to head back into the water and get her surf on.  Any fear is accommodated by her friend saying “Aren’t you afraid?” with Bethany’s response being “I’m more afraid of not surfing” — which is equivalent to Jesse Ventura’s line in Predator: “I ain’t got time ta bleed”.  Now, perhaps that’s how it really went down, but take some dramatic liberties so that we of less conviction than this invincible teen can feel the abject fear that one would THINK they would REALLY feel after been attacked by a shark.
They do hit the prerequisite low point in the character arc by having her be all upset that she didn’t win the first surf competition after losing her arm. She sulks. She gives away her board.  She’s done.  But again, I say, should that be the thing that makes her question surfing?  Rather than the fact that there are MORE sharks in the ocean?

The performances are good, with Anna Sophia Robb (Bridge to Terabithia) being a standout among acting veterans Dennis Quaid, Helen Hunt, and Craig T. Nelson.  And the talent is probably the only thing holding the serious components together.  McNamara is an Emmy nominated director, but nominated for Evens Stevens — and other credits include 3 Ninjas and That’s So Raven.  Not really a preface for directing deep emotions.

Cinematography is pretty, most notably in the surfing sequences.

I did read a scathing review which directed a lot of attention toward the CG stuff — comparing it to Sharktopus.  Now, I have to step up in the FX team’s defense on this one.  The shark attack WAS definitely poorly executed, as well as a couple of mystifyingly bad greenscreen comps.  But, the critic misses acknowledging the fact that there are over 500 nearly seamless shots where the artists working at Engine Room digitally removed Anna Sophia’s left arm.  We visual effects artists are like Homeland Security most of the time.  If we are doing our job right, you never notice it.

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