It took two respected directors and a brush with death for one of its stars, but Chasing Mavericks made it to theaters in late October 2012. It received a wide release and was promptly ignored by audiences, going on to gross a mere $6 million. Thats a shame, because this uncommonly weighty, inspirational surfing drama packs an emotional wallop. Hopefully this family-friendly film, based on the real life of soul surfer Jay Moriarity, gets a second lease on life now that its available on home video.
Mavericks is a Northern California surfing location where big wave surfers have been tempting fate since the early 60s. Teenaged surfer Jay Moriarity (Jonny Weston) longs to step up his game by riding the kind of waves Frosty Hesson (Gerard Butler) tackles. In a brief prologue (an invention of the screenwriters, not an event from the real Moriaritys life), we see Frosty rescue a very young Jay (Cooper Timberline) from the undertow after a particularly strong wave pulls him down. Ever since, Jay has wanted nothing more than to be mentored by Frosty.
It comes as no surprise that Frosty reluctantly begins training the 16-year-old to surf Mavericks, focusing not only on physical but also mental preparation. Thats more or less the gist of Chasing Mavericks, with a handful of complications thrown in along the way. The main attraction is the spectacular surfing footage, captured with stunning clarity by cinematographer Bill Pope. But theres plenty of character-based drama, with Jays mom Kristy (Elisabeth Shue) and her troubled relationships, the health problems of Frostys wife Brenda (Abigail Spencer), and a slowly burgeoning love story between Jay and his future wife Kim (Leven Rambin).
Perhaps due to the illness-related exit of original director Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential), Mavericks suffers somewhat from a lack of forward momentum anytime it leaves the waves. Michael Apted stepped in, assuming directorial duties (he and Hanson are co-credited). Maybe the sudden derailment only a month into shooting, after an extensive preproduction period quarterbacked by Hanson, resulted in the somewhat stilted atmosphere. Whatever the case, its nowhere near a fatal flaw. Its important to point out that Chasing Mavericks is a PG-rated, family film aimed primarily at teen viewers. The details of Jays early surfing career and personal life are laid out with workmanlike efficiency, with Apted and company preferring to let the surfing scenes speak for themselves.
Jonny Weston brings a sense of earnest dignity to his portrayal of Jay Moriarity. He works well with Gerard Butler, who infuses just the right amount of focused intensity in his portrayal of the gruff surfing instructor. Elisabeth Shue and Leven Rambin are underused as the women in Moriaritys life, but Abigail Spencer has some nice moments as the guiding light in Frostys life. As Mavericks builds towards its climatic surfing summit between Jay and his cohorts, the Magnificent Three, it becomes clear that the film is more than simply an inspirational, go for it tale. It certainly is that, but its also a bracing examination of how fleeting those waves (and life in general) really are.
The Blu-ray transfer is gorgeous, quite important given the primary visual draw of the remarkable surfing sequences. The clarity and details seen in those thrilling scenes is exactly the kind of thing high definition was made for flawless from start to finish. Also a treat is the DTS-HD MA 7.1 mix, which is most interesting during (you guessed it) the surfing scenes. The crashing of waves lends itself naturally to surround sound, and the mix never fails to envelope the viewer in the oceans fury. Otherwise, the dialogue scenes are fine but whenever the characters take to their boards, the full surround spectrum really comes alive.
A strong package of extras accompanies Chasing Mavericks. The commentary by director Michael Apted, producer Jim Meenaghan, and writer/producer Brandon Hooper elaborates on the difficulties inherent in switching directors mid-production. Theres also some good discussion comparing the real life of Jay Moriarity and the film version. A series of ten-minute featurettes are all worth watching, none more so than Live Like Jay which is about the real Moriarity. Surf City focuses on the shooting locations, while Shooting Waves allows us to see how visual effects combined stunt surfers with cast members. Surfer Zen dishes on Gerard Butlers very serious accident while shooting a surfing scene, resulting in the actors hospitalization.
Chasing Mavericks didnt end up lighting any fires at the box office. It suffered setbacks during production, with Gerard Butlers near-fatal surfing accident and the departure of its original director. The producers even had to serve as interim directors until a replacement was found. In other words, the production complications somewhat mirrored the strife in Jay and Frostys story as depicted onscreen. Poignant and inspiring, the end result deserves to be seen.