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Case Number 16704

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Morning Light

Disney // 2008 // 98 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge William Lee (Retired) // June 29th, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge William Lee doesn't know much about sailing, but he has raised a kite in the morning.

Editor's Note

Our review of Morning Light (Blu-Ray), published June 18th, 2009, is also available.

The Charge

A 2,500-mile journey that will change the course of their lives forever.

Opening Statement

Roy E. Disney loves sailing so he jumped at the suggestion to make a movie about the yacht race across the Pacific Ocean. A competition was held to find 15 young sailors to crew the Disney-sponsored boat. How will this sailing adventure shape the lives of these young men and women?

Facts of the Case

The Transpacific Yacht Race is a grueling test of endurance where teams sail across the open ocean from California to Hawaii. It's a competition for experienced sailors only and most participants are over the age of 30. In 2007, the crew of the Morning Light were all between the ages of 18 and 23 when they competed in the race.

The Evidence

Morning Light falls somewhere between a sports documentary and reality television. The content and tone is divided about equally between observing the participants in their element putting their training to work, and watching moments where the drama feels inflated for the cameras. Disney movie magic aside, this documentary of young people taking part in a race that exposes them to the open ocean for over a week is compelling entertainment.

The first half of the film follows 15 crewmembers during months of training leading up to the race. The extensive training they go through looks a little like reality TV challenges but without the immediate threat of elimination. The pace is fast and, consequently, the sailors' personalities are only marginally established. Aside from "the Aussie" or "the girl," there isn't much background information to distinguish one crewmember from another. Apparently, each of the young participants kept a personal journal during this experience and in voice-over narration we hear them reading snippets of what they recorded. The majority of those readings are quite wooden and that just draws attention to the filmmakers' attempts to add tension and emotion to the proceedings.

There is a lot going on in this documentary and too many people to keep track of initially. Even graphics and text and hurriedly pushed off screen before the information fully registers. When the time comes to cut four people from the final racing crew, it's unfortunate that those relegated to reserve status are virtually faceless to viewers.

The race itself is very exciting as the young crew tries to hold their own against a field of veteran competitive sailors. Decisions take on considerable weight when they're alone in the middle of the Pacific. It is also during this section of the film when we see the natural personalities of the various crewmembers.

Morning Light gets an excellent technical presentation on this Disney DVD. Aside from a few grainy shots from a night vision video camera, the picture is nearly flawless. The image is sharp throughout and the colors are rich while appearing very natural. The camera work is good during the relatively controlled training situations. Once the race is on, there is considerably less space in which the cameraman can maneuver but the footage covers a lot of action from some very exciting angles.

The surround sound mix is a treat with music and sound effects that fully engage all speakers. Without overdoing it, the subtle bass activity is almost constant. A nice touch: I appreciate the effect of filtering the music to match whenever the camera goes under water. My only criticism of the sound mix is that the dialogue was sometimes unclear. I mentioned the wooden narrations earlier, but even during live conversations the crew seemed to communicate in flat monotones.

The two featurettes included on this single disc are nice companion pieces to the movie. "Stories From the Sea," hosted by Jason Earles (Space Buddies), gives us 28 minutes of back-story that didn't fit into the main feature. Executive producers Roy Disney and Leslie DeMeuse, both big sailing enthusiasts themselves, talk about how the project got started and what they feel is their own stake in the experience. There are more interviews with the Morning Light crew as well as a segment on their training in the Polynesian technique of navigating by the stars and waves. A particularly enjoyable segment features cameraman Richard Deppe and how he went about capturing the stunning race footage.

The second featurette "Morning Light: Making the Cut" is a 41-minute special that aired on ESPN. This one is more along the lines of reality television material but it's still very informative and watchable. From the original call for applicants to the selection of the 15 crewmembers for training, this is the story of the project prior to the events covered in the movie.

The Rebuttal Witnesses

To be fair, Morning Light is not an instructional video on sailing. Nevertheless, the movie doesn't make it any easier for outsiders to discover the sport. On-deck communication is sometimes cryptic due to the lingo that's spoken. The different roles of crewmembers are a mystery. From what I could tell, one person steers while the others hang on to the boat wherever they can. Occasionally there is intense action like the winding of winches, raising a kite, or taking down a sail. How these activities affect the boat I can only guess.

Closing Statement

Sailing looks like a sport for rich people and this film doesn't do much to make me think otherwise. The lucky youngsters who get to race across the Pacific are healthily sponsored in Roy Disney's love letter to sailing. Still, the race itself is an exciting adventure and the action gets a boost from the excellent technical presentation. For sailing fans, this movie is a good way to introduce the sport to younger viewers—especially if they can explain to them afterwards how it all works.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 95
Audio: 92
Extras: 80
Acting: 80
Story: 80
Judgment: 84

Perp Profile

Studio: Disney
Video Formats:
• 1.85:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
• English (SDH)
• French
• Spanish
Running Time: 98 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
• Disney
• Documentary
• Sports

Distinguishing Marks

• Featurettes


• IMDb
• Official Site

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