Universal // 2012 // 107 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // June 11th, 2012
Inspired by the incredible true story.
"Are you sure this is gonna work?"
Adam Carlson (John Krasinski, The Office) is a television news reporter currently on assignment in Anchorage, Alaska. Most of the stories he files are uneventful, to say the least: openings of Mexican restaurants, underwhelming snowmobile stunts, etc. However, just as he's preparing to pack his bags, he makes a remarkable discovery: three whales are trapped beneath some ice and seemingly have no hope of escape. This tragic story quickly turns into a major media event, and in no time at all Adam's former girlfriend and devoted Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore, Fever Pitch) has flown to Alaska to lead a campaign to free the whales. Also getting involved: a wealthy oil baron (Ted Danson, Bored to Death), Alaska's irritable governor (Stephen Root, Office Space), a presidential aide (Vinessa Shaw, Two Lovers), a no-nonsense Colonel (Dermot Mulroney, The Grey), an eager reporter (Kristen Bell, Veronica Mars), a pair of enterprising inventors (Rob Riggle, The Daily Show and James LeGros, Mildred Pierce) and many, many others. Can the combined efforts of these many individuals free the whales from an icy fate?
Big Miracle is directed by Ken Kwapis, a man who has had a commercially successful but disappointingly generic career in film and television. One of his more considerable box-office achievements was the ensemble comedy He's Just Not That Into You, which wove a series of rom-com vignettes into a large fabric. It's surprising to see Big Miracle taking a nearly identical approach, working the stories of seemingly countless characters into this warm and fuzzy tale of a dramatic whale rescue. While the sheer volume of recognizable faces on display is impressive (including not only the high-profile cast, but also archival footage of George H.W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Peter Jennings, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather and, uh, Sarah Palin), there's a sense it all distracts a little too much from the very thing the film is ostensibly about.
Between multiple romances, comic relief characters, professional rivalries and political disputes that come into play, it can be easy to forget that there are three whales on the brink of death (something the film usually attempts to remedy by simply having Barrymore's character yell that the whales are about to die). This "every angle" approach could have been interesting if handled with the snappy intelligence of something like Steven Soderbergh's Contagion, but Big Miracle's depiction of the complicated process is too oversimplified, undercooked and broadly silly. It just wants to be a warm, funny family movie, but it might have been better at that if it had eliminated half of its overstuffed cast and given more attention to some of the more compelling, undernourished human relationships.
The central characters are the ex-lovers played by Krasinski and Barrymore, who respectively offer shining examples of the best and worst the movie has to offer. Krasinski comes across as a surprisingly savvy choice for this material; he's warm, witty and refreshingly natural (the "family film" vibe often seems to be an invitation for overacting, as one might quickly notice when observing some of the other cast members). Alternately, Barrymore's dogmatic Greenpeace activist feels like a forced caricature; Barrymore's character is meant to be an overwhelming force, but the actress doesn't have the commanding screen presence to pull it off. These two are eventually thrown into a romance of sorts, but it feels as if they're following the orders of the script rather than genuinely developing feelings for each other (the minimal chemistry between the two is minimal, their relationship only clicks during those scenes in which Krasinski quietly frets in the background as Barrymore inevitably takes another one of her rants a step too far).
Big Miracle is by no means a dull or terrible movie -- it certainly has moments that are gently inspirational and/or amusing -- but one can't escape the sense that it's also a big missed opportunity. It's a fascinating chance to explore one of those fairly ordinary moments in life which somehow transforms into an extraordinary media sensation; a small-scale event which eventually becomes part of the public consciousness and twists itself into a major political collaboration between the United States and Russia. It's fascinating stuff, but the strange depth of the real-life story never really resonates in this far-too-conventional film. It's lacking in both social analysis and emotional heft (even Free Willy did a more effective job of heartstring-tugging). It's a decent way to distract the kids for 107 minutes, but this could have been something exceptional in the right hands.
Big Miracle (Blu-ray) has received a perfectly satisfying 1080p/2.40:1 transfer which does a nice job of presenting the film's simultaneously bright and chilly palette. The Alaska location at least gives the movie something of a distinctive visual presence, and while the icy landscapes aren't highlighted often enough, the level of detail is consistently impressive. Flesh tones are warm and natural and darker scenes benefit from impressive shading. The DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio track is sturdy as well, though perhaps a bit less overwhelming immersive than you might hope. Like many family films, it tends to be conservative in terms of distributing big, booming sound, so you'll have to content yourself with a clean, polished but often rather understated track. Supplements include a commentary with Kwapis, a pair of featurettes ("A Big Miracle in Alaska" and "Truth is Stranger than Fiction"), some deleted scenes, Pocket Blu and BD-Live. Frustratingly, the Blu-ray is presented as an easily-smudged flipper disc with a hi-def version of the film on one side and a DVD copy on the other.
Big Miracle is an inoffensive feel-good flick, but far less riveting and...well, miraculous...than it ought to be. Too bad.
Guilty of falling short of its potential.
Review content copyright © 2012 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* DTS 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Deleted Scenes
* Pocket Blu
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site