So. Three whales are trapped under the ice. A daddy whale, a momma whale, and a baby whale.
There’s so much ice they can’t see a way back out to the ocean and they just breathe out of this tiny hole they punched through, right? They’re like swimming in place and poking their head through the hole, taking a breath, swimming around… doing it again.
All of a sudden Drew Barrymore appears at the edge of the hole. She pokes her head over the edge and says, “Don’t worry, guys, don’t you worry. We’re going to do EVERYTHING WE CAN to get you out of there. I am not going to let people pretend that you’re not DYING here. I am going to tell everyone I can, and I will NOT stop. We are going to SAVE you.”
And the daddy whale looks at the momma whale and says, “Does that mean we’re going to have to listen to HER for a week?”
“Big Miracle” is based on a true story. In 1988, three Grey Whales were discovered trapped in ice off of Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States. An effort to save the creatures began that would eventually gain national media attention, international cooperation and cost over $1 million dollars. It’s really kind of a fascinating incident in environmentalist and conservationist history, and it would have made for an excellent documentary, especially seeing as the entire event was WELL documented.
It makes for a pretty lackluster movie though.
Seeing as “Big Miracle” is a docu-drama, it relies almost entirely on the events it’s depicting to carry the day. The characters are based on actual people, for example, so there’s not a lot of embellishment in order to create motivations, growth, etc… This is a movie that is a family film, just out to retell these events with a few laughs sprinkled through here and there, and let the “heartwarming” and “uplift” of the real story save the day.
The problem is it’s really kind of a boring story…
Honestly, even if you’re like a card-carrying member of Greenpeace, I don’t know how we’re supposed to get around the fact that this movie is basically 1hr 40mins of people cutting holes in the ice… There’s not even any great deal of opposition from the participants. The government is reluctant for all of 5 minutes, she gets help from the local big oil company, we’re already in the age of Glasnost, so there’s no real geo-political issues when the Russians eventually come… I mean, time and mother nature are literally the only antagonists here. And we get to watch people do battle against them with chainsaws, generators, defrosters, and ice picks.
I get that this is a “Family Movie”, so it’s supposed to be lightweight, but there’s really not much to it, outside of the factual events. Drew Barrymore plays a hawkish shrew of an environmentalist… she’s so preachy that she actually had me siding with the rich oil baron (thanks Drew!), and she manages to do it all while only talking with one side of her face! John Krasinski plays a bland, dorky local news personality. The two of them are supposed to be romantically connected to each other, but I’ve seen bags of oranges that set off more sparks than this pairing. There’s some charisma sprinkled throughout by Ted Danson, Kathy Baker, Kristen Bell and John Michael Higgins, but not enough.
They actually don’t spend enough time WITH the whales. It’s always ABOUT the whales, yes, but there’s only the one scene where Drew scuba-dives down with them that they feel prominently like characters. Outside of that, they’re just sticking their spouts up and treated like the objects to be saved. Similarly, there’s a sub-plot involving the local Inupiaq Inuit’s efforts to preserve their traditional way of life that I found far more fascinating than any other aspect of the film, and as such, it felt under-utilized.
I wish I had an alternatative suggestion for you for every film, but it’s usually never this clean cut. If you have a soft spot for whales, your time would be far better served seeking out 2002’s “Whale Rider” starring Keisha Castle-Hughes. It’s the story of a young girl’s struggle to become the chief of her local tribe. In spite of her clear superiority over her male peers, the sexist culture she’s in creates an obstacle to what should clearly be her right. It’s an excellent, excellent movie and earned Keisha Castle-Hughes an academy award nomination for best actress. It’d give that movie an A.