Cast Saves Whales, 'Big Miracle'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
"Everybody loves whales," John Krasinski enthuses early on in this movie. He seems to have a point, if the ever-burgeoning name cast of "Big Miracle" is any indication. That's not to say that the movie, directed by Ken Kwapis and based on a real-life late '80s incident involving a trio of lovable swimming mammals trapped under ice in coldest upper Alaska, is packed with superstars (if that category even exists in the cinema arts anymore.) But it serves up a rather uncannily steady parade of recognizable performers in almost comically rapid succession: Krasinski, Drew Barrymore, Kathy Baker, Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, Stephen Root, Vinessa Shaw, Dermot Mulroney ... and it just goes on. About midway through the picture, a bearded guy from Minneapolis turns up in the arctic wilderness, doing something like a Bob and Doug MacKenzie schtick (Minneapolis being reasonably close to Canada, one guesses), and seeing him, you may ask yourself, "Is that James LeGros?" It is.
This array of talent portrays an array of characters of disparate backgrounds and interests who somehow form a family ... OK, an alliance, to save, you know, the whales, who are nicknamed Fred, Wilma and Bam-Bam. ("Why Bam-Bam and not Pebbles?" you may ask. It is explained, if you need it to be.) Krasinski's an amiable but ambitious TV news reporter who unearths the story, Barrymore's the Greenpeace activist who's also his ex, Danson's an oilman in search of positive publicity, Bell's another ambitious TV reporter trying to scoop smarmy rival John Michael Higgins (did I mention John Michael Higgins is in this?), and Root is the governor. As the story goes national and attracts massive media attention, forcing a slight lifestyle change within the Inupiat Eskimo tribe that constitutes the indigenous population of the area, politics rears its interesting head, and the story attracts attention from not just Ronald Reagan, but the Soviets, as a Russian vessel could be the only hope for breaking through the ice that's holding the whales captive.
Sounds like a perfect vehicle for unremitting schmaltz, and the movie certainly has its fair share of that. However, it also has a more-than-fair amount of wry humor, droll political observation if not actual satire, and nicely understated emotional content in the romance department. The role of the almost overearnest environmental crusader is well-nigh perfect for Barrymore, whose prominent de-glamming here is explained in a throwaway line in which her character sneers about cosmetics being tested on animals.
This detail is in fact rather emblematic of the way "Big Miracle" brings unusual nuance to a hoary heartstring-tugging saga, and thus renders it several notches above average in its genre. And it's also got the aforementioned whales, rendered mostly via what look like highly expert special effects. They're plaintive, alert and largely adorable, and the underwater sequences pack a cavernous lyricism that's uncommon in most entertainments of this sort. If this movie already looks like your kind of thing, you won't be disappointed. If you think it's absolutely not your kind of thing, you might be surprised.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.