Review: “Johnny Tsunami” surfs the line between interesting commentary and alright sports film

If you grew up in the 2000s, one of the biggest staples of your childhood had to be Disney Channel Original Movies. Presenting a wide variety of different stories to tell, these movies brought joy and laughter to many of us. While some became extremely popular and others were forgettable, “Johnny Tsunami” somehow manages to be in the middle ground.

In “Johnny Tsunami,” it follows young surfer Johnny Kapahaala, played by Brandon Baker, who lives in Hawaii. Johnny loves to spend time with his fellow surfer and living legend grandfather Johnny “Tsunami” Kapahaala, played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, despite the disapproval of his straight-laced father Pete, played by Yuji Okumoto. However, everything changes for Johnny whenever his family moves to Vermont after his father gets a job at a prestigious private school. Johnny has trouble fitting in however until he meets public school kid Sam, played by Lee Thompson Young, who teaches him how to snowboard despite a divide between the public and private school kids.

One of the most interesting aspects of the film comes from the conflict between the private and public school kids. On the mountain where everyone goes, it is divided in half to where the snowboarders and skiers both have different sides and can’t cross to the other. This goes hand-in-hand with how these characters are perceived by others. Though it could’ve been a cool way to look at how differences in people, the end reveals the real reasoning for the split in the mountain which kind of negates the entire issue to an easily solvable problem.

In terms of performances, everyone does a very serviceable job with the only standouts being Baker, Tagawa and Okumoto. Each of these actors play off each well making their interactions seem genuine and realistic. However, their performances only show how flat everyone else’s can be. The worst of these has to be the bully, Brett, played by Zachary Bostrom. His line delivery was pretty average and his character’s motivation for bullying Johnny seems nonexistent.

One of the biggest mistakes in my opinion for the movie is how downplayed the sports aspect really is. It is true that a good amount of time is spent with Sam showing Johnny how to snowboard. However, even more time is spent on the relationships between the Kapahaalas across the different generations. Snowboarding plays a very little role in the film with the exceptions of a couple of scenes and the finale.

Going onto the dynamic of the Kapahaalas, it would’ve been better to have more backstory on Pete and Johnny Tsunami to understand their conflict. Throughout the entire film, Pete disapproves of Johnny hanging out with his grandfather because he is a “surf bum.” There is obviously a lot of animosity between them but we are never really given a straight answer as to why. We get vague references to how Johnny Tsunami couldn’t “provide” the same way Pete can now but it doesn’t really go beyond that.

“Johnny Tsunami” has the weird honor of being iconic yet still kind of forgettable. This film eventually got a sequel in 2007 returning back to Hawaii and giving Johnny a new sport to learn. However, it doesn’t have the same appeal as many other Disney Channel Original Movies that received more sequels or acclaim. Upon rewatching this film, I realized that there were many aspects that I didn’t remember about it despite loving it as a kid.

All in all, “Johnny Tsunami” is an alright film that could’ve been better with more development and time spent on the sports aspect. It may not be one of the best Disney Channel Original Movies but it is fun for a nostalgia trip.

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