We are told early on in Big Miracle that “everybody loves whales!” It’s both an excuse and a rallying cry and, had Ken Kwapis’ film stuck with its first moniker, it would have also been the title of his latest film. Someone apparently had the foresight to slay that terrible name, but it’s still managed to worm its way into the finished feature, where it’s pronounced earnestly, practically begging for its audience to nod and say, “yep, it’s true – just everybody loves whales.” Strangely enough, it’s that tossed-aside title that sums up Big Miracle quite neatly – earnest, insane, and conducive to crowd participation and (positive) involvement.
The film ostensibly centers on local television reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), who has been tasked with spending time in various locales around the state in order to craft colorful pieces about Alaskan life. Adam is just about to finish his stint in Barrow, which is a good thing, as material is running scarily thin (his latest piece is about the town’s sole Mexican restaurant, a spot that, bizarrely enough, becomes of the film’s primary locations). While attempting to gather more material with his best pal, Inuit tweenager Nathan (while how the odd couple became pals is never explained, their bromance is actually sort of sweet), Adam stumbles upon the biggest story of his career – a family of whales trapped in the growing ice, miles from open sea, in desperate need of some kind of rescue. Adam’s inevitable news piece on the situation steadily gathers interest across the country, and soon tiny Barrow is deluged with all manner of people looking to get in on the action (oh, and maybe to save the whales).
While that story may sound simple enough, Big Miracle is about twenty times more complicated and convoluted than it initially reads. Barrow becomes ground zero for an ungodly amount of people and interests – best exemplified by the film’s leading ladies, who show up to serve as both love interests to Adam and as representatives of diametrically opposed interests in the context of the whales. Drew Barrymore plays her usual brand of cockeyed optimist, Greenpeace zealot Rachel Kramer, who continually appears to be the one person genuinely concerned with the actual well-being of whales, while Kristen Bell’s Jill Jerard is a big-haired television reporter from Los Angeles who just wants to land a good story.
In addition to the environmentalists and the journalists, Big Miracle is also overrun with big oil, the government at large, the local Inuit population, the military, the town’s inhabitants, and even a couple of out-of-state yokels who show up to save the day on their own terms. Despite the built-in drama of animals and peril and the dueling interests of a whole cast of nutbars, Big Miracle is virtually without conflict. Of course, there is the appearance of conflict – will big bad oilman J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson) do the right thing, will the Inuits back off from their plan to harvest the whales, will those cute little schoolchildren who are repeatedly shown watching the entire thing unfold via television ever recover from such drama? Go ahead and guess. But amidst the film’s adherence to tossing together people, places, ideas, philosophies, and plans and mistaking the whole stew for an actually well-crafted movie, Big Miracle accomplishes something wholly unexpected – it is almost unfathomably entertaining and engaging. It’s ludicrous and more than a bit strange, but it’s also very sweet, quite well-intentioned, and consistently charming. It may even be deserving of that oft-used slice of poster art: “crowd-pleasing.”
Of course, it’s also entirely possible that Big Miracle could make even less sense than it already does (which is to say, not a whole damn lot), because the film is (incredibly enough) based on a true story. Even more incredibly enough, Big Miracle actually sticks to a number of facts while telling its true story; “Operation Breakthrough” did take place in 1988, three whales were trapped in the Beaufort Sea, a barge was initially dispatched from Prudhoe Bay to break the ice, and Soviet Union icebreakers were called in to assist (in reality, two icebreakers were involved). See? There is some truth amidst the vast sea of insanity that Big Miracle swims in.
The Upside: Watchable to the point of compulsion, Big Miracle manages to hit just about every emotional trigger an audience could possibly possess without any real sense of stakes or conflict. By and large, it’s entertaining, predictable, and easy.
The Downside: Goshwhaleit, the film’s downside is pretty much exactly the same as its upside. Sheesh.
On the Side: Stick around for the credits to see proof positive that one of the film’s most hard to buy sub-plots is legitimately based on fact.