Look: I don't know anything about your children or what they're into. Sometimes they stare at me at the grocery store as if they know all my secrets, but our relationship ends there. But if I did have kids, I would be grateful for a sweet, non-boring film like Big Miracle to take them to. Man, woman or child, you would have to be some sort of monster to sit through a viewing of a film about whale rescue without being moved.
Inspired by true events, the movie begins when a goofy but likeable news reporter, Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), is sent from Anchorage to Alaska's most northern point, by Barrow, for a month of fluffy human-interest stories. He happens upon a family of whales trapped in the ice, and what follows is the media frenzy that ensues around the logistical, political and cultural challenges of freeing the whales. Drew Barrymore pulls double-duty as both the Greenpeace representative and Krasinski's ex-girlfriend. You don't need me to tell you that they make an adorable couple; it's like they're made out of snow-frosted gingerbread. From there, the scene is infiltrated with a career-climbing news reporter (Kristen Bell), a self-interested oil tycoon (Ted Danson) and opportunistic but lovable de-icing machine inventors (James Legros and Rob Riggle) all the way from Minnesota, eh?
The film deals with the politics of the situation more deftly than I expected. It's frank about each of the player's objectives and motives. The Reagan administration is gearing for a Bush Senior presidency, and so has a vested interest in not coming off to the enamored public as whale killers. Dick Cheney (Bruce Altman) makes a few pointed appearances. (He's credited as "Chief of Staff," but make no mistake.) When the whales have their big moment, notice how Cheney almost, almost, almost smiles...but doesn't.
Animals have a way of being stubbornly bi-partisan, and it's a nice escape from present-day reality to see powerful world players at their best. Big life lessons are delivered in simple, deliberate language that's easy for young children to follow. It offers a gentle introduction to the inner workings of government without being overly depressing or realistic about it.
The film has a lot of fun setting the story in the late 1980s, as when Nathan, a young Eskimo (Ahmaogak Sweeney), gets a shipment of cassette tapes sent up from Anchorage (among them, Def Leppard's Hysteria; for real, it holds up). There's some '80s hair in the beginning to fawn over, but once they're all on the ice, they just look like bundled up, modern-day Montanans again.
A lot of care is taken to present the characters with about as much depth as a family film has room for. Barrymore, as the stubborn environmentalist, is passionate but myopic. The Republicans and money people are all about the bottom line, and yet. The Eskimos are hunters of whales, but kind-hearted and reverent. Even the Russians who come in to save the day with their big Soviet barge are sweet.
It's the little things that make a difference here. They shot in Alaska, and the whale heads bobbing to the surface aren't CGI, but puppets. They look the realest, and it lets the humans react to them with warmth and surprise that doesn't feel forced in front of a green screen. The movie works overall because it manages to create real tension. It's not called Big Disappointment. You've gone to see an inspirational family film called Big Miracle, so you know it's going to work out, but even so. I remember the news stories from 25 years ago, and I was still fretting!
Be sure and stay through the end credits for the real-life news footage featuring people involved in the story. I thought the Greenpeace lady with a megaphone at the oil-contract bid meeting was a little cliché, but as it turns out, that part is very true.
And whatever you do, don't get all plucky detective about it and research what really happened to those whales. It all worked out and everybody got married, so just go home and feel great about humanity and the environment.
Big Miracle continues at the Carmike 12.