Short reviews of new movie releases.
Though it flirts with saccharine Sunday-school uplift, there's a redeeming core of sincerity in this story of real-life tragedy and perseverance. Bethany Hamilton was a 13-year-old competitive surfer with a promising future when a shark took her left arm at the shoulder. News of the attack grabbed the attention of media everywhere. Her survival after the trauma was in doubt, but Hamilton's Christian faith and supportive family sustained her as she successfully returned to the waves and her recovery spawned feel-good followup stories. Some might see her story as one of simple bad luck followed by good luck, or of cable news outlets that go ballistic when bad things happen to blond women. Hamilton saw it as God's plan, bringing her to prominence so she could deliver a message of inspiration. In fact, that's the tag for her personal Web page, "Bethany Hamilton -- Professional Surfer, Role Model, Inspiration."
"Soul Surfer" benefits from a solid lead performance by AnnaSophia Robb ("Bridge to Terebithia"), who makes Hamilton an idealistic, trusting, innocent ray of sunshine. Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt slide into the roles of her devout, middle-class, beach-bum parents as comfortably as bare feet into flip-flops. The story is drained of conflict and urgency, however, by the characters' faith that a loving God guides their fates and all will work out for the best. The emotional fallout of Bethany's accident is nothing more than one huffy mealtime argument; a bit less optimism would make a more gripping drama. Still, there's plenty of visual excitement in the exceptional surfing scenes. Longtime kids' TV director Sean McNamara not only gets inside the action, he gives the towering waves and roaring pipelines a spiritual resonance.
At this stage of the game it's not easy to make an original World War II movie. The competent but derivative Dutch "Winter in Wartime" goes down a well traveled path, but on training wheels: Kids under German occupation shelter a downed Allied flier. The youth perspective gives this moderately effective film its novelty. Fourteen-year-old Michiel (Martijn Lakemeier) resents his cautious father, the mayor of their town, because he believes he appeases the Nazis. He idolizes his uncle, who shares tales of cloak-and-dagger adventure with the Resistance. When an RAF pilot (Jamie Campbell Bower, "Sweeney Todd") parachutes into the forest, Michiel hides him and plans to move him past German patrols to safety. As the noose tightens around the pair, Michiel learns that the adult world is more complex than he imagined. Unfortunately, the tale is dragged down by too many stock situations. If you've seen one slow-motion "Noooooooo!" as a firing squad lets loose, you've seen 'em all.
This nature film -- celebrating the efforts of two intrepid women, half a world apart, to rescue animals and return them to the wild -- is very much "a fairy tale," as Morgan Freeman narrates. Director David Lickley ("Jane Goodall's Wild Chimpanzees") and his crew follow Biruté Galdikas, an orangutan researcher on Borneo, where habitat is being destroyed to make way for vast palm-oil plantations. Her staffers become mothers to the orphaned orangutans, feeding, bonding and singing lullabies to them, keeping just enough distance to let them remain "wild." Once the apes are old enough, they're taken to a national park and released.
Daphne Sheldrick does something similar in Kenya with elephants orphaned because their moms have ivory tusks. For half a century, Sheldrick has been perfecting elephant baby formula and raising orphan elephants that return to the wild as a herd. Cute, but never insufferably so, "Born to Be Wild" uses 3-D playfully -- to stick an elephant's trunk in your face, and kids will get a kick out of orangutan burps and elephant soccer.