Riding Giants (documentary)

DVD sales for “Riding Giants” will probably be brisk, given the film’s popularity and critical success, but I wonder if buyers will be disappointed. If ever a film needed to be seen on the big screen to be appreciated, it’s this one. How can you fully understand the importance of surfing a 30-foot wave when the wave only appears to be 20 inches tall?

The film that opened the 2004 Sundance Film Festival — the first documentary to do so — is an enthralling, entertaining, jaw-dropping look at the history of surfing, told mostly by the men who brought it into vogue in the 1950s. Greg Noll is interviewed extensively, and if that name means anything to you … well, then you’ve probably already seen the movie. If not, take the movie’s word for it, he’s a big name in the surfing world.

It was Noll who, in the late ’50s, became the first celebrity big-wave surfer. His outgoing personality and flamboyant style helped bring the sport out of obscurity into greater popularity. But what helped even more were the “Gidget” movies. “Riding Giants” asserts that where there were maybe 5,000 active surfers in 1959, when the first “Gidget” film came out, there were 2 million just five years later.

We learn about the difference between big-wave and small-wave surfing — it has to do with the style, too, not just the size of the waves, smart-aleck — with the focus of the film being on the magnitude and danger of big-wave surfing, as opposed to the hot-dogging trickery of small-waving. We learn the pros and cons of having a leash attaching your surfboard to your foot. There is a wealth of old footage and photographs showing the big kahunas of yesteryear surfing Hawaii’s stunning Waimea Bay and the treacherous Mavericks of Northern California. We catch a glimpse, through the words of the surfers interviewed, what the appeal is, how a mere sport can become a true way of life.

And we see some killer waves, and that is sometimes meant literally. Watching surfers wipe out is exciting in its own right, but when we see them succeed, gliding flawlessly and unbelievably quickly down a giant wave, it’s absolutely thrilling. Director Stacy Peralta, the skateboard champ who brought us the similarly excellent doc “Dogtown and Z-Boys” a few years ago, captures as well as any film can the exhilaration of surfing, telling a number of incredible stories along the way.

A- (1 hr., 45 min.; PG-13, 3 F-words, a lot of other profanity.)