Film review: Big Miracle

"Save-the-whales" cliche overcomes expected fluff, reveals smart filmmaking

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Set in 1988, Ken Kwapis's Big Miracle starts off with a basic premise (trapped whales), adds in a great deal of colourful characters all at each other's throats, and tops it all off with the worst possible things happening at the worst possible moments. Here is a movie about rescuing animals that becomes far highly politicized, while also including real human beings for characters instead of genre archetypes.

We begin in the Arctic, shooting in the town of Barrow, Alaska. The lead is reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), a likable man who is first introduced while doing a news story on a Mexican restaurant. Adam's sidekick is a young boy named Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney), a kid who isn't fond of his native heritage and traditions. Adam is planning on leaving the town before the week is up, but after being coerced into doing one more story, he soon discovers that whales have become trapped in the ice.

Soon enough, Adam's story essentially goes viral (if such a thing could realistically happen in 1988), and his ex-girlfriend, Rachel (Drew Barrymore), a Greenpeace activist, finds out. It plays on national television, and soon every major network is sending reporters to cover the whale story. One of these reporters is Jill (Kristen Bell), whom Adam has had a crush on for some time. They hit it off after meeting and spend much of the film together, even though the character of Jill vanishes for a 30-minute stretch, eventually leading to her becoming unnecessary and redundant.

Much of Big Miracle is concerned with keeping these whales alive. The sub-zero climate makes it difficult to keep the ice from freezing, although various methods are tried. The whales' condition eventually worsens, other things go wrong, and a lot of improvisation takes place. Some of the tactics work, while others fail. It's surprising just how much tension can be generated when you put a few animals in a perilous situation, and Big Miracle milks that for all it's worth.

Despite the ever-present whale situation, there is also a human element to this production. It's refreshing to see your typical bad guys (the uncaring profit-driven oil driller, for example), put aside their differences in order to help these poor creatures. But they don't do this by completely switching around their characters, either -- the businessman still doesn't like the Greenpeace activist. Differences are put aside for these whales, but the whole situation doesn't define, nor is it the sole motivating factor, for these people. They're all very human characters, filled with flaws and strengths just like anyone watching the movie.

Part of what makes this film successful is the amazing job done with creating life-like whales. While we rarely see the full creature (usually one will just come up for air and its head will be visible for a couple of seconds), one could be mistaken into thinking that real whales were used. All three of them are given different bodies so that viewers can tell them apart, and they function well enough as their own characters.

Where Big Miracle falters is in its actors and in its story, although the latter is less of a fault and says more about a potential viewer than it does of the film. First, the acting is all over the place, although it gets better as the film progresses. In the first half, most of the actors struggle with their delivery, and nobody is terribly convincing. As it progresses, the acting gets better. Second, it would be near impossible to tell this story without it coming across as cheesy. If you can't handle a cheesy story, you'll want to skip this movie. This is more of a way to narrow down a target audience than a real shortcoming, but it bears mentioning.

When it comes right down to it, Big Miracle is an enjoyable movie. It manages to overcome spotty acting and a corny script to become a smart film with deep-enough characters and some tension thanks to everything that just has to go wrong at exactly the worst time it can. It's worth watching if you don't mind a corny story and can handle some poorly-acted scenes, especially if you want to see some computer-generated whales and learn about a real story of struggle and activism.