Big Miracle

Big Miracle


Reviewed by: David Graham

'Inspiring true stories' often equate to cinematic sleeping pills, but this latest example transcends the usual trappings of sub-TV-movie Sunday afternoon fare to deliver a well-rounded and finely balanced little treat. Expertly exploiting a chocolate-box selection of potentially sickly sympathies via the requisite cute kids, endangered animals and environmental soap-boxing, director Ken Kwapis juggles an impressive variety of plot strands while always keeping the potentially mawkish narrative entertaining. He's aided no end by a seemingly never-ending array of dependable thesps, from Ted Danson to Tim Blake Nelson, while Drew Barrymore may get top billing but is never allowed to become as overbearing as you'd be forgiven for thinking.

Young news-hound Adam Carlson is hungry for a story to put him in the journalistic big league, but fears his posting in the furthest North of Alaska is leading him nowhere. An unfortunate situation involving a family of grey whales trapped in an ice pocket may be just the ticket he needs, his coverage receiving a further boost when it attracts the attention of his environmentalist ex-girlfriend Rachel. As the story seizes the nation's hearts, a motley crew of politicians, scientists, journalists and locals descend upon the small whaling community of Barrow. The ulterior motives and opposed perceptions of some of the rabble cause conflict between the various parties, but they're forced to put their differences aside in a race against time to free the suffering animals. However, the range of desperate measures they employ could put their own lives at risk as well as those of the whales.

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Adapted from the book Freeing The Whales, the sparky script paints a broad-stroke picture of a political circle of life where, refreshingly, no faction is merely black or white, right or wrong. As a family drama, the film is surprisingly skilful at representing a range of viewpoints and ideals in terms that are easy to relate to for young and old. The action never degenerates into moral lecturing - in fact Barrymore's character is somewhat of a deliberate caricature of 'tree-hugging' types - while the pace remains brisk for the majority of the duration.

As the characters converge and the action settles down to focus on the rescue effort, the film does lose its way a little, pushing a little too hard for emotion and sentiment in a cliched but still relatively subtle manner. The fate of the whales almost seems secondary to the human drama above the ice, with the squabbling inevitably giving way to a begrudging mutual respect that's not entirely convincing. To Kwapis' credit, though, none of his protagonists are as two-dimensional as they could easily have been, and all of them are done justice by the sprawling ensemble.

John Krasinski makes a hugely likable lead, coming on like a goofier but less irritating Ryan Reynolds, although his love triangle subplot does seem like an afterthought. Barrymore works her usual plucky appeal, managing to keep the audience invested in her potentially insufferable character right through to her inevitable emotional breakdown. The locals are played with naturalistic charm by young Ahmaogak Sweeney and John Pingayak, their people's noble history etched on the latter's weathered face and graceful delivery of material that could have been mawkish.

Big Miracle is really lifted by the incredible line-up of supporting actors; the likes of Danson's oily tycoon, Dermot Mulroney's uptight military man and Nelson's whale aficionado are all fleshed out by the stars' committed and layered performances. On top of that there are a series of crowd-pleasing cameos from always-welcome familiar faces such as Stephen Root and [film]Edward Scissorhands[/fillm]' Kathy Baker, with Shea Whigham, especially, a hoot as a helicopter pilot with a frozen face.

CGI is used sparingly to convey the underwater majesty of the whales, while the Arctic landscape and authentic locations are shot with an un-fussy but appropriate slickness. The usual heart-stirring score is offset by well-placed period rock and pop songs, while the editing is snappy enough to build some genuine tension as the situation grows ever more dire. It would be easy to criticize the film just for its traditionally safe genre, but it doesn't shy away from any of the issues it raises, remaining open-minded and unbiased on everything from the community's whaling practices to the role of the media in the whole affair.

Big Miracle isn't going to win any awards for originality or become anyone over 12's favorite film, but it serves its purpose sincerely and does what it does extremely well. It's old-fashioned but high-quality entertainment, with an emotional directness and universal message that would be churlish to deny. It's consistently amusing and full of nice little details that betray the love and care that obviously went into its production; all that's missing is a Disney logo, although the Mouse House would be hard pushed to improve on Kwapis's execution.

Reviewed on: 20 Feb 2012
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Big Miracle packshot
A group of volunteers race to save three whales trapped by ice.
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Director: Ken Kwapis

Writer: Jack Amiel, Michael Begler

Starring: Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, John Pingayak, Ishmael Angalook Hope, Othniel 'Anaqulutuq' Oomittuk Jr.

Year: 2012

Runtime: 107 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: US, UK


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