Big Miracle: Film Review

Universal Pictures
A whale of a cast helps bring this energetically expansive true-life rescue tale home.

Directed by Ken Kwapis and based on the 1988 story about a family of gray whales, the Universal film stars Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski and Ted Danson.

The generically nondescript title aside, Big Miracle is an enjoyable, lively account of an Alaskan animal rescue story that touched the world.

Using a broad, generous canvas to recount the events surrounding the 1988 plight of a family of gray whales who become ice-locked off the shores of Barrow, Alaska, director Ken Kwapis and screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler demonstrate an eye for playful period detail, but it’s the affable cast, headed by Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski, that really makes the picture so widely accessible.

With its all ages appeal, the Universal release could see some buoyant box office along the lines of last fall’s Warner Bros.’ adventure, Dolphin Tale.

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Based on the novel Freeing the Whales by Thomas Rose, the film efficiently establishes its brisk tone and equally brisk Arctic Circle setting, where local TV news reporter Adam Carlson (Krasinski) covers the quality of the guacamole at the town’s only Mexican restaurant.

His dreams of making it into the bigger markets are realized when he stumbles across three whales trapped beneath the ice, with a single, ever-shrinking hole providing their only oxygen supply.

Carlson’s footage of the whales’ plight initially captures the attention of his ex-girlfriend, environmental activist Rachel Kramer (Barrymore), who quickly takes up the cause.

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So does Tom Brokaw, who runs the story on his NBC Nightly News telecast, and all of a sudden everyone wants to be in the whale-saving business for very different, self-serving reasons.

With its socio-political ramifications that travel far beyond the snow banks of Barrow, the story also attracts the attention of everybody from the Alaskan Native population to a pro-oil-drilling businessman (Ted Danson) to the Reagan White House, looking to position vp George H.W. Bush as a pro-environmental humanitarian and even the Glasnost-promoting Soviets.

They’re all given the same even-handed treatment by Amiel and Begler’s script, and while  character complexities tend not to run too deeply below the surface, there’s more than enough for Kwapis and his talented cast to utilize to their advantage.

Both Barrymore and Krasinski are terrific and credible both in their respective lines of work and as still-involved former couple.

Good, too are Danson; Dermot Mulroney as a steadfast National Guardsman in charge of transporting a gigantic hoverbarge in an ill-fated rescue mission; and Vinessa Shaw as persistent White House executive assistant Kelly Meyers.

Also enjoyable are all those 1988 touches, from the clunky Walkmans to Gordon Gekko references, while those real-life broadcasts by Brokaw, Dan Rather, Peter Jennings and company have been nicely integrated into the dramatic recreations.

On the subject of recreations, New Zealand-based special effects artists Justin Buckingham and Mike Latham do a sufficiently convincing job of bringing those California gray whales to life (they served a similar function on 2002’s Whale Rider); while veteran cinematographer John Bailey crisply captures all that still frosty terrain and steel blue sky.