I understand there's a previous Johnny Kapahala made-for-cable movie from The Disney Channel, but I haven't seen it. I wasn't expecting much from this latest offering, Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board, because so many of these original cable movies from Disney and Nickelodeon are frankly, sub-par. But I was pleasantly surprised by this combination of a quiet, thoughtful little domestic drama with the gnarly, sick mountain boarding epic. While it won't win any awards for originality, Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board has a nice, steady tone to it, a gentleness to its dramatics that's a welcome relief from some of the more frantic tween movies out there.
Johnny Kapahala (Brandon Baker) is returning to Hawaii for a summer vacation and to see his grandfather, Johnny Tsunami (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) get married. Unfortunately, his parents and grandfather have asked Johnny to try and bond with Chris (Jake T. Austin), the smart-aleck brat son of Carla (Robyn Lively), Grandpa Johnny's soon-to-be wife. Chris wants nothing to do with his new "family," and doesn't want to live in Hawaii, but Johnny continues to try to reach out to him, using Chris' passion for mountain boarding (or dirt boarding) as a possible link between them, as Johnny, an accomplished surfer and snowboarder, tries to master the new sport.
Trouble lies ahead, though, for Chris, who wants to be a part of the Dirt Devils, a group of boarders who work for Troy (Phil Brown), a slimy board salesman who wants to grab a contract with a national manufacturer. When Grandpa Johnny and Carla decide to stock mountain boards along with their surf boards in their new business - located right across the road from Troy - Troy sets out to ruin Grandpa Johnny, and he's not afraid to use Chris to accomplish that goal.
While there aren't too many surprises with the various plot threads of Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board, they're approached by the filmmakers with a sensitivity that I found quite refreshing. The subplot involving Troy seeking revenge against Grandpa Johnny is really only an excuse to hang the film's numerous mountain boarding sequences onto, which are excitingly shot. I confess I didn't know there was such a thing as mountain or dirt boarding, but it looks pretty fun, actually (and probably deceptively easy, too). The director of Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board, Eric Bross, tweaks the camera angles and film formats (alternating deliberately scratched up, blown-out lighted shots with color-reversed footage) during the exciting action scenes, giving the viewer a pretty cool sense of what it must be like to mountain board. While I was a little disappointed that New Zealand stood in for Hawaii here (I would imagine due to a combination of cost-cutting and more available "pristine" locations), Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board sports some beautiful vistas and attractive settings for all the action.
As good as those scenes were, I was far more impressed with the laid-back, mellow approach to the main characters and to their relationships with each other. The young Johnny's relationship with his cool grandfather was sweetly rendered, with the two actors having a natural chemistry together that was evident on the screen. It's great to see a family movie that's actually about family issues, and the sometimes difficult dynamics of a blended family are sensitively handled here in Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board. Watching many similar films of this type out there, you can get the impression that the average American family is stuck with a Neil Simon, Jr. wiseass, smarting off every five seconds and breaking wind while everyone else is screaming at the top of their self-centered lungs. Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board refreshingly skirts that popular cinematic stereotype, and presents a warm, balanced view of the type of family that's certainly more prevalent than people in Hollywood would like you to believe exist.
The full screen, 1.33:1 video image looks fine here, with no compression issues, and bright, deep color hues and values. Sharp image.
The Dolby Digital English 5.1 Surround audio mix is a knockout, with the blasting soundtrack more than adequately represented, and nice separation even during some of the more mundane sequences. English subtitles are available.
A couple of good extras grace the Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board DVD. First, there's The Dirt on Dirtboarding, a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of the film, with some cool insight into this rad new sport, as well as interviews with the pleasant cast. Angle On: Board Stunts is really an informative extra, showing various stunts used in the film, with commentary by legendary mountain boarding ace, Akoni Kama. What's sweet about this extra is that you can choose three different views of the stunt, with individual commentary for each camera angle - nice. There are also some music videos from Jonas Brothers and T-Squad (if that's your thing).
Some sick mountain boarding sequences only add to the pleasure of quiet family drama, Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board. There's a nicely observed, measured tone to this made-for-cable Disney film, a sweet take on a familiar story that makes it stand out among the more crass offerings on cable. The actors are laid-back and relaxed, and the beautiful location work in New Zealand helps, too. I recommend Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.