Barrymore and Krasinski save the whales in Big Miracle

The Office director Ken Kwapis delivers a workmanlike whale tale.

While it’s easy to like Big Miracle, it’s also easy to see where the filmmakers could’ve really excelled. The film chronicles the true story of three whales that struggled to survive after getting trapped under ice in the frozen waters of the Arctic Circle back in 1988. The bigger picture, though, relates to people from widely different backgrounds and with competing motivations who come together to help save these creatures. Sure it’s contrived, but it’s also a true story.

Leading the ensemble cast is The Office’s John Krasinski playing a small-town reporter doing small-time reporting in Barrow, Alaska. After he does a few local color stories on the area, he stumbles upon a trio of helpless whales (which endearingly come to be known as Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm) and does one last report on his way out of town. It’s this parting shot that is picked up by the major networks and starts stirring passions nationwide.

The story grabs the attention of a nutso Greenpeace volunteer (Drew Barrymore) who also happens to be the small-town reporter’s ex-girlfriend (quite the handy coincidence). She passionately leads the charge to rescue the whales, and rallies support from the Coast Guard, the local population and the indigenous Inupiat people. There’s even cooperation between America and the Soviet Union during a time of seriously cold relations between the two.

Then there’s oil entrepreneur J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), who’s ready to drill baby drill without a care for the natural habitat until he realizes he can parlay saving Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm into an improved image with the environmentalists. Also on hand is Kristen Bell (playing a role that’s actually tolerable) as a big city reporter trying to find meaning in the coverage of animals instead of humans. And don’t forget the much-understated role of the Inupiat, a people who are frowned upon because they hunt whales, yet are also the folks most willing to protect them.

I was generally pleased with the way writers Jack Amiel and Michael Begler adapted Thomas Rose’s book Freeing the Whales into a screenplay, but there was more for them to accomplish here. While the film stays consistent throughout in detailing the tribulations of the whales (often using to great effect footage from real national news broadcasts in ’88), Big Miracle falters when trying to keep up with its many human characters. The pieces are all lined up and ready, but director Ken Kwapis (a TV vet who’s helmed multiple episodes of The Office and The Bernie Mac Show, among others) never really assembles the puzzle in a satisfying manner.

So I guess I’m guilty of some January generosity (brought on by a dearth of quality new films at the multiplex) when I write that I’m recommending Big Miracle despite its flaws, largely because it’s lightweight and charming and managed to exceed my (admittedly low) expectations. Sure, the film had a chance to be more than just an above-par Dolphin Tale, but there’s no way corporate Hollywood would ever sacrifice potential profits for deeper meaning. That would be the biggest miracle of them all.

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