The Highlight Reel

Johnny Tsunami and the class war of winter athletics

Nick Porisch

More stories from Nick Porisch

The Highlight Reel
May 10, 2023

The original poster for this dope movie.

This is a new column where I’m setting out to explore the highs and lows of cheesy sports movies. Our first stop on this journey through sports film history is the classic Disney Channel Original Movie “Johnny Tsunami”.

When the movie begins, 13-year-old Johnny Kapahala is sitting on the beach with his friends, eating pineapple and watching a legendary surfer carve the gnar — a surfer that turns out to be none other than Johnny’s grandpa, the original Johnny Tsunami.

In Hawaii, Johnny’s life rules. He’s got a crew of chill surfer bros, he’s one of the most promising surfers on the island and he spends most of his time with his extremely dope grandfather.

The only wrench in the gears of his sweet lifestyle is his dad, a nerd who gave up surfing in high school in favor of pursuing a lucrative career as an computer software engineer.

This movie was made in 1999, when movies usually made the Internet seem like the most rad new horizon in human technology to date. However, Johnny’s dad somehow makes it seem like the most lame technological advancement since sliced bread.

Johnny’s dad and his grandpa had some major fallout in the past, and Johnny’s dad lives in perpetual anxiety of Johnny pursuing the same surf bum lifestyle as his grandfather.

So, Johnny’s dad takes drastic measures. His computer software work is about to bring him to snowy Vermont, and he’s going to bring Johnny with him. Permanently. Johnny is, of course, devastated.

In Vermont, Johnny is out of his element. The Vermont of “Johnny Tsunami” is perpetually blanketed in ice and snow, to the point you’d think Johnny had moved to Nunavut.

He begins classes at a fancy private school, where bullies hit him with sick burns like “what planet did you beam down from?” because he has the audacity to wear a Hawaiian shirt to class. 

His main nemesis, Brett, even gives him the brutal nickname “Hawaii.”

Life in Unnamed Town, Vermont revolves around Air Summit, the local winter sports mountain.

The mountain is split down the middle, with the rich private school kids, known as the Sky, skiing on one half, and the poor public school kids, known as the Urchins, snowboarding on the other half.

After a humiliating attempt at skiing, Johnny falls in with Sam, a local snowboarder, and the other Urchins.

From here, the movie spends the next half hour building Sam and Johnny’s friendship, showing Sam slowly pick up snowboarding and fleshing out the conflicts between the Sky and the Urchins.

At one point, Emily, Johnny’s private school love interest, almost falls off the mountain and dies while attempting to snowboard. In a bizarre rescue sequence, Sam also ends hanging from the cliff, Johnny hits his first jump and a ski patrol officer saves the day.

Salute to ski patrol officers.

Eventually, there’s some hijinx revolving Sam’s military father being relocated to Iceland, the boys running away to Hawaii and the original Johnny Tsunami teaching them a lesson about running away from their problems.

The movie culminates in a big race between Johnny and Brett the bully for final claims to the mountain. Before the race, Brett tells Johnny that snowboarders “bring complete and total shame to the winter sports community.”

Did I mention this movie is awesome?

Johnny, of course, wins the race. We find out the mountain was owned by two brothers, who we know as the managers of the ski and snowboard shops, respectively. They make up and reunite the mountain.

Johnny and Emily dance, Johnny Tsunami and his son make up and Sam is still leaving for Iceland the next day. The end.

This movie was legitimately, unironically very good. 

Some of the acting and editing were choppy, and Emily is a woefully undeveloped character. However, the other central characters, the snowboarding and surfing scenes and the thematic elements all legitimately land.

They’re simple, sure, but they’re executed really well. 

I can’t recommend “Johnny Tsunami” enough if you’re looking for a goofy, fun way to kill 90 minutes.

Final note: Johnny’s grandpa, the original Johnny Tsunami, has a catchphrase that is essentially a Michael Jackson-style “heehee!” It will haunt my memory forever now.

Porisch can be found at [email protected].