I have nothing against whales – except that hardly any of them bothered showing up during a 9th grade whale watching trip I went on for Biology class – but it’s tough to watch a movie like Big Miracle, based on the 1988 multi-million dollar campaign to save three whales trapped under ice in northern Alaska, and not realize how the movie “expects” you to feel about what some people see as an uplifting moment in animal rights history and others see as a colossal waste of time, money, and resources.
Perhaps if the film delved into that controversy more it would make for a better story. As it is, the film’s story (which is really missing a “loosely” from the opening title card that says “Inspired By A True Story”) involves Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), a small-time Alaskan television reporter with big-time dreams who stumbles upon the story of a lifetime – the three trapped gray whales mentioned above – which quickly escalates into a national news story. Saving the whales becomes a rallying point for several unlikely allies, including Adam’s ex-girlfriend and Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) and oil drilling executive Liam Peterson (a fast-talking Ted Danson). Along the way Adam also teaches young Inupiat boy Nathan (newcomer Ahmaogak Sweeney) a thing or two about television production, compassion, and Guns N Roses.
Sounds uplifting, right? The fact is, everyone in the movie is using the whales as a public relations opportunity – Liam Peterson to make his Big Oil company look big-hearted, Rachel to rally fundraising for Greenpeace (and to prove to her ex-boyfriend that she is really a deep person), the reporters to further their careers now that it’s a national news story, Ronald Reagan to improve his environmental record in the waning days of his presidency, the presidential candidates to appear environmentally friendly, two goofy businessmen from Minnesota (played by Rob Riggle and James LeGros) who are using the whole predicament to promote their ice melt product, and even the wise old Inupiat natives decide to help the whales so Greenpeace won’t protest their traditional whale hunting (there’s also the usual spiritual reasons that Hollywood films unfortunately always associate with native peoples, you know, the kind of stock character trait that always makes a native person the wisest person in a movie which is used so often it’s stereotypical and arguably offensive). In fact, the only person in the movie who seems to genuinely change from selfish to selfless is John Krasinski’s Adam Carlson, who decides to abandon his major-market television reporter ambitions (and a potential romance with smoking-hot Los Angeles reporter Jill Jerald, played by Kristen Bell) in favor of saving the whales. Unfortunately, Krasinski must have filmed this movie in between scenes of The Office – yes, while his character might be named Adam, we’re really seeing Jim Halpert as a 1988 television reporter (while looking more like a L.L. Bean catalog model than like a 1988 television reporter). I kept waiting for him to smirk at the camera after his usual “sarcastic Jim quips.”
Indeed as an adult viewer it was difficult to take the film seriously when the movie constantly shows that almost every character is into the whales for their own gain, even if there are moments of “Aw gee, I guess I do really care!” Particular problems are with Barrymore’s character, who spends so much time crying about the whales that I couldn’t help but think that her compassion was actually mental instability akin to animal hoarders. At one point in the film she suggests that she’ll blow the whale story up so much if Reagan doesn’t help that the resulting negative media attention will cause Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, to lose the 1988 presidential election. This threat is illogical on so many levels that it’s surprising that screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (who have written The Shaggy Dog, The Prince and Me, and Raising Helen) expect an adult audience to take it seriously. Since kids know nothing about Reagan, Bush Sr., or how political PR works, this is obviously a plot point aimed at parents… except they know better. It doesn’t make it better that Rachel’s ulterior motive is to win back the heart of ex-boyfriend Adam, who (correctly) points out that they broke up because she is crazy. And though the film is set in 1988 the only things that appear to be from 1988 is the technology (TV cameras, computers, walkman) and Kristen Bell’s sad attempt at “big 80s hair,” which is another thing that will definitely take adult audiences out of the movie.
There are a few great moments, of course. Director Ken Kwapis has been making these types of family movies long enough to know how to effectively pile on the melodrama outside of Barrymore’s character. I did want to see those poor whales escape, after all, even if they are pushed to the background. And John Michael Higgins is fantastic doing his best Ron Burgandy impression in a small role as a Los Angeles television reporter.
Kids will eat it up – they love animal movies, and the whale effects are really well done (it was hard to tell what was CGI and what wasn’t, although I wouldn’t be surprised if no actual whales were used during filming). But I don’t get why what should be an uplifting family film must end up so cynical. When the movie finally goes full throttle with the emotional uplift during the climax, there’s barely any time to engage it. Instead, we’re quickly rushed off to an extended postscript that shows the real-life people involved in the 1988 whale rescue next to the actors who play them, which is a mistake – it shows you how artificial the film is compared to the actual story. It makes me imagine how much more powerful this would be as a documentary showing the many sides of this story.
The big question, of course, is how many whales could have been saved in 2012 using the reported $30 million budget of this film… and how Drew Barrymore’s character would have felt about Universal Studios promoting the film with Burger King kid’s meal toys. But I’m worried it would’ve made her cry again and I already got enough of that.
Rating: Kids will love it, adults will probably enjoy it, historians will roll their eyes (5/10)