Starring: Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Ted Danson
Directed by: Ken Kwapis (“The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”)
Written by: Jack Amiel (“The Prince and Me”) and Michael Begler (“The Prince and Me”)
Not counting “Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,” movies about whales are usually aimed squarely at kids, teeming with mystical mumbo-jumbo about the intelligence of the giant creatures and their special connection with children and the close-minded adults who are too caught up in, oh, I don’t know, providing for their families to actually appreciate the marine mammals. In most cases, appreciation usually comes right before the credits roll. Throw in some big-time movie stars slumming in a movie their kids can watch and a goofy animal friend, like a dog that covers its eyes when something goes wrong or a seal that barks comically at the grumpy old man threatening to shut down the amusement park/aquarium/whatever, and you’ve got yourself a movie any third grader will love. Thankfully, “Big Miracle” avoids this formula.
“Big Miracle” is based on the true story of three gray whales trapped five miles from the open ocean underneath a sheet of Arctic ice and the international effort that arose to save them. Set fairly unconvincingly in 1988, the story opens with reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) covering the local color in Point Barrow, Alaska. While out documenting a local’s less-than-spectacular snowmobiling stunts, Adam stumbles upon a hole in the middle of the ice, the frigid water inside regularly breached by the rostrums of the aforementioned whales surfacing to breathe. After Adam’s report on the trapped cetaceans goes national, the tiny frozen town is soon overrun with people looking to save the whales (nicknamed Fred, Wilma, and Bamm-Bamm), for both ideological and opportunistic reasons. Leading the effort are Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), a strident Greenpeace activist, her frequent foil, Arctic oil baron J.W McGraw (Ted Danson, not the least bit convincing as an oil man), and the local Inupiat tribe, all of whom have their own motives for participating in the rescue effort.
Director Ken Kwapis, veteran of “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” and numerous TV series like “The Office” and “Malcolm in the Middle,” wrangles a large cast full of comedy ringers in tiny roles (Andy Daly, Rob Riggle, and John Michael Higgens, among others) into a surprisingly funny and wry family movie. While other films about sea-faring mammals tend to play down to kids and overdose on the treacle (I’m looking at you, “Dolphin Tale”), “Big Miracle” isn’t afraid to lay bare the real intentions behind the characters’ actions beyond “let’s save these whales!” Barrymore’s Rachel uses the occasion to call into question the environmental policy of the Reagan administration. Danson’s McGraw provides heavy de-icing equipment to put an environmentally-friendly face on his oil drilling operation. Krasinski’s Adam and Kristen Bell’s Los Angeles-based reporter Jill Jerard see the international attention as the big break their broadcast careers need. And the Inupiats see an opportunity to show the world they are more than culturally out-of-touch whale hunters.
While sometimes ungainly with too many characters fighting for too little screen time, “Big Miracle” ends up entertaining nonetheless. The real, honest laughs come from genuinely funny scenes, like an exasperated teacher in a classroom full of students doing identical oral reports on the whales, an icy helicopter ride wherein the pilot’s frozen eyelids are creatively defrosted, or winking reference to Alaska’s favorite idiot Sarah Palin, thankfully not from the typical family movie stabs at humor like a mugging pelican or beat-boxing otter.