Amid the horror and cliched romance movies that tend to come out in February, a feel-good family film seems like a natural fit, catering to those who want something sweet around Valentine's Day, but wouldn't be caught dead at a Nicholas Sparks movie. That said, my expectations for Big Miracle were pretty low. Often movies about rescuing animals turn out too saccharine, even if they tell a compelling story. I was really pleasantly surprised, however, with this family flick that manages to be both uplifting and intelligent.
Inspired by true events in 1988, Big Miracle tells the story of three California grey whales and the people trying to save them. The whales, nicknamed Fred, Wilma, and Bamm-Bamm are trapped by five miles of ice off the coast of Barrow, Alaska. Unable to make their yearly migration to warm southern waters, the whales are in danger of drowning if the hole in the ice they are breathing through freezes over. Local TV reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) discovers the whales and files a report that catches the attention of his ex-girlfriend and Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore). She is able to enlist her nemesis, oil tycoon J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson) to bring in a hoverbardge to break up the ice, but in the arctic nothing is easy. When things really hit the fan, Kramer, McGraw, the local Inupiat people, and the government have to think fast to find a solution that will save the whales and satisfy everyone's political agendas before time runs out. Meanwhile, the story has caught the attention of the world and reporters, including big-haired beauty Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell) have flooded the small Alaskan town.
What I most enjoyed about this movie is that it didn't just gloss over the economic, political, and cultural issues that complicated the mission. Instead of pretending that everyone loves whales that much, the film honestly portrayed how politics and capitalism contributed to the success of the rescue. Sure, eventually everyone gets emotionally invested, but the motives aren't ever pure. J.W. McGraw first gets involved as a PR stunt (admittedly an expensive one) to give his oil company a green image. The Reagan Administration gets involved because it's an election year. For the local Inupiat people, the situation is difficult. They eat whales and want to harvest these three. While some view the whales as an opportunity to defend their traditions, others fear that all outsiders will see is blood, not their respect for nature or their way of life. These issues made the story not only compelling on an emotional level, but also intellectually stimulating. Maybe I'm too skeptical, but I never thought I'd say that of a mainstream movie about saving whales.
Further, Big Miracle has a cast to get excited about. Krasinski brings all his charm as Adam, a character who wants to make it big, but without growing as cynical as the reporters who storm Barrow. Barrymore steals the show as Rachel. While still loveable, her character is so passionate that she is sometimes alienating and Barrymore balances that tenacity well. Ahmaogak Sweeney plays the local kid who hangs out with Adam pretty regularly. His character is caught between what's cool in 1988 and his grandfather's desire that he learn about their culture's traditions. Sweeney does a great job of being a likable, goofy kid without ever coming off as a brat or as obnoxiously cute. As Colonel Scott Boyer, Dermot Mulroney is comically grumpy, but I was most impressed by his performance when his character is on the phone with the president. He's clearly emotional, both proud and nervous, but keeping his cool enough that you only see it if you're paying attention.
Finally, I appreciated that the movie leaves all the thrills to the storytelling. It's obviously a period piece demanding artifacts of '80s culture, but it doesn't make a joke of that. The whales provide some cool moments requiring CGI, and there's a pretty crazy helicopter scene, but most of the big moments come from the natural landscape. Overall, Big Miracle was a well-told story with an excellent ensemble of seasoned and novice actors, proving that if you have a great story to tell, you don't need to drown it in special effects, expensive gadgets, or sexy fashion. A parka will do. 4/5 stars
Big Miracle was directed by Ken Kwapis and written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler, based upon the book Freeing the Whales by Thomas Rose. It runs 107 minutes and is rated PG for language.