A Former Contest Snowboarder Tells You Everything Wrong With Disney’s ‘Johnny Tsunami’

Justin Caffier
(Photo: obsev / videology bar and cinema)

I was lucky enough to live within spitting distance of a pimple of a mountain growing up, so from about age 12 on I spent at least one day a week in the winter months learning how to snowboard and eventually excelling at it.

I eventually reached a level where I was able to travel around the Rockies and Appalachians competing in various rail jams and trick contests. Don’t get it twisted: I was never anywhere close to pro level, or even some of the top tier amateurs, but I occasionally placed high enough to score a few free snowboards or winnings to cover the cost of my round-trip flights. It was a self-perpetuating hobby and a hell of a lot of fun.

Over the years, mostly in college, the frequency with which I visited the slopes started to wane. Other interests superseded snowboarding as my top priority and, eventually, the financial responsibilities and scheduling struggle of daily existence eventually limited my boarding trips to an occasional treat. It gives me no great joy to admit that it's been almost two years since I last hit the slopes. I could still tell you what trick was being performed if, like, the X-Games were on (Are the X-Games even still a thing?) but other that that, I've really just been relegated to an internal nod of recognition when catching a glimpse of snowboarding in the media.

One artifact of snowboarding culture sticks out heads and shoulders above the others in my mind.

The Disney Channel Original Movie Johnny Tsunami is inarguably one of the premier pre-teen-targeted snowboarding movies. In the film, Hawaiian surfer-brah Johnny Kapahala is pulled from the waves of Hawaii to the mountains of Vermont after his dad gets transferred out East for work. Johnny spends the film learning that the skills he picked up from all those years of surfing magically translate to snowboarding prowess.

I dusted off my snowboarding expert hat to see just how well this snow story holds up under scrutiny.

Like the titular character, I too made my transition to boarding after putzing about on skis, though I spent a solid seven years on two boards before switching to one. Johnny eventually made the leap after meeting the hipper, less stuffy kids who snowboarded, and I’d be lying if I said that same siren song of coolness wasn’t what roped me into that world as well.

I noticed a few serious inaccuracies in the first act of the movie. Johnny walks into a board shop and, after the shopkeep learns that Johnny’s grandpa is a famous surfer, Johnny is informed that any snowboarding gear he wants is on the house. This did not happen. Even when sponsored by a board or skate shop, one could usually only hope for a few pieces of outerwear freebies, and maybe an occasional board or binding handout once a season. On Johnny’s first day on the slopes, he walked out with about $1,000 of free merch. That’s some Willy Wonka sh*t I would’ve killed for.

It’s also apparent that middle-aged, out-of-touch squares are behind this movie when one examines the wardrobe choices. A local snowboarder tells Johnny that he is not yet “cool enough” to wear one of those goofy hats that look like they have felt dreadlocks attached to them. NOBODY WORE THESE! If they did, they would’ve been verbally roasted to within an inch of their life. Beanies of the short and tall variety were the staple headwear back then as they still are today.

The jackets worn by the boarders looked like they were pulled directly from the sale page of The House, a snowboarding gear and clothing catalog from that era that still exists in website form today. Fashion was, and always has been, a part of the culture. Yes, success is largely a meritocracy based on skill, but many amateurs transitioned to pro based solely on the personal brand they'd built for themselves based on their outfit and board aesthetic. And this was well before anyone ever even used the term "personal brand." The wardrobe choices in Johnny Tsunami were clearly an afterthought.
 

Disney

Johnny learns to carve in a realistic enough fashion. The montage of him catching his edge and wiping out before gradually hopping around like a newborn deer mirrors most snowboarders’ journeys, albeit in a sped-up way, as montages tend to be.

I get that it doesn't make for good visuals to have too many wipeouts, but even Johnny's inaugural snowboarding run had him wiping out in this sorta cartwheel fashion that popped him right side up after every spill and sent him careening back down the mountain. Not once does Johnny mention how sore he is from his first day on the board. I didn't expect Disney to delve into the locker room and show off the sickeningly royal purple ass bruise Johnny would have had for two weeks after a major fall, but they could've at least had Johnny thrown out a superficial, "Boy, am I sore today!"

Towards the end of the film, when Johnny and his comically villainous skiing rival, Brett, agree to a race to the bottom for rights to the mountain, they both clearly are not taking the race seriously, as each spends far too much time on their run busting out tricks. Not only would this reduce aerodynamics, and thus speed, but you also really put yourself at risk of botching a landing when throwing unnecessary grabs and rotations into a race. I didn't see Johnny, who rides regular, suddenly do a 180 and land switch (i.e. the reverse of his regular stance) to continue the race, so my hat goes off to whoever made sure that didn't happen, as it would've been unbelievable to have this relative novice be ambidextrously balanced on both sides of his board.
 

Disney

The biggest reality disconnect from the movie was the forced animosity between skiers and snowboarders. While the kids I knew as skiers primarily stuck to the trails and the snowboarders to the parks, we all rode buses to and from the mountain together. We were friends who played different sports and cared about what the other was doing as little as a high school football player cares about a baseball player. Though there is a history of elitism when it comes to snowboarders encroaching on skiers’ turf, the Sharks vs. Jets mentality that permeates Johnny Tsunami is a vestige of a bygone era that speaks once again to the age of the writers behind it.

Overall, the film may be a glossy kids movie that gave its star way too much talent without the broken arms and tailbones (I had to sit on an inflatable donut—not fun to walk around a high school with that) that real snowboarders endure to reach those skill levels, but it’s still a more accurate representation of snowboarding than Out Cold ever was.

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