DCOMs don’t get more classic than Johnny Tsunami. I was going into kindergarten and don’t remember the premiere of this one, but I watched it whenever it was on as I grew up. In case you’ve never seen it, Johnny Kapahala (Brandon Baker) is a native of Hawaii who loves surfing with his grandfather (played by Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, the one who’s actually called “Johnny Tsunami”). Young Johnny is crushed to move to the mainland when his dad gets a job in Vermont. He has to wear a uniform and contend with the snobby rich kids, known as the Skies, at his new private school. These students go skiing, while the teens who snowboard are called the Urchins. As you might guess, the Skies and the Urchins don’t get along. Johnny’s new best friend Sam (Lee Thompson Young) is an Urchin, and his love interest Emily (Kirsten Storms) is a Sky.
This movie rightfully has a place in the hearts of many millennials. Most great DCOMs tackle themes of fitting in and finding real friends in life. Johnny Tsunami hits those marks in so many ways. Johnny feels like an outsider culturally and athletically, as he’s pulled between skiing and snowboarding, but really misses surfing. To make matters worse, his only real friend, Sam, will be moving away since his dad’s in the military. The guys try to solve this by running away to Hawaii together, where Johnny’s grandfather greets them with compassion and calmness. His dad and grandpa have a difficult relationship, which also affects the dad’s parenting.
Director Steve Boyum, a supreme athlete himself, expertly handled the fiercely competitive Vermont snow scenes that were filmed in Utah. Hawaiian portions of the film were actually shot in Hawaii, unlike Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board.
It’s highly unusual for DCOM sequels to occur so long after an original film’s release. But eight years after Johnny Tsunami, Johnny Kapahala: Back on Board debuted. By 2007, Disney Channel was a pretty different place. DCOMs increasingly featured musical components with the talents of rising pop stars. There are no pop stars here, though. Directed by Eric Bross, this movie is just as intense on the sports front. This time, dirtboarding is the competition of choice. Johnny Tsunami is getting married and inheriting a stepson named Chris (Jake T. Austin). The tween gets pulled into the wrong dirtboarding crowd and is influenced by a greedy manager.
In order to help the family prepare for his grandfather’s wedding, Johnny Kapahala agrees to mentor Chris and help steer him in the right direction — not an easy job. The Honolulu Star Bulletin accentuated the facts that Johnny Kapahala was filmed in New Zealand, that Johnny didn’t surf much, and that young Uncle Chris was inconsolable. As much as I like Jonathan “Lil J” McDaniel, I do miss Lee Thompson Young in the role of Sam. And Kirsten Storms’ character is replaced by a dirtboarder named Valerie, played by Rose McIver. Even so, Johnny Kapahala was a sweet callback to the early years of DCOMs, and I was happy to see it premiere 15 years ago. Fun detail: Johnny’s new step-grandmother is played by Robyn Lively, who is actually married to Bart Johnson, Coach Bolton from High School Musical.
Ahead of the sequel’s premiere in ’07, Entertainment Weekly interviewed Brandon Baker about reprising his beloved role. “It’s fun to come back and play Johnny for a second time because he was definitely my favorite character — at least the closest to me as a kid. I’m a surfer, a snowboarder…more of a sports guy. I just like being active. We definitely share that,” Baker said. He added, “Being a multi-ethnic actor, it’s difficult to get roles that are close to the person you are. I would always play the funny best friend, or the orphan.” He enjoyed authentically playing a Hawaiian character who excels in board sports. Brandon Baker is one of my favorite DCOM stars, and I’d be thrilled to see another Johnny Kapahala movie!