Eleven college-age sailors face down more than 2000 miles of open sea in Morning Light, a Disney documentary about the TransPacific (or "TransPac") Yacht Race. I met the film with more than a little skepticism. It is, without doubt a vanity project for married executive producers Roy Disney and Leslie DeMeuse. And whether the idea was pure of heart or not, the gathering of a conspicuously young and photogenic crew to man (and woman) Disney's Morning Light smacks of a gimmick. Colorfully shot and briskly edited, Morning Light suggests a TV reality show on the water, and with a bit more class. So I was pleasantly surprised that despite these alarms, Morning Light comes across as a sincere love letter to sailing, as seen through the eyes of a handful of very lucky youngsters.
After stentorian opening narration by Patrick Warburton, the film gets down to business. A fast field of desirous sailors becomes thirty invitees put through an elaborate audition. The thirty become a team of fifteen, but there's a catch. Only eleven can be the yacht's crew, meaning four will stay home as alternates after completing the rigorous training. Having explained this daunting situation, sponsor Disney comes across as a bit disengenous when he tells the final fifteen, "I just don't want you thinking this is some kind of a game." Still, the need for alternates makes sense, and Disney is right to warn his crew not to waste the opportunity. He needn't have worried: it's a grateful, nervous, and dedicated bunch, ready and willing to have a life-changing experience.
When Walt's nephew says, "It's about the journey," he's being dramatic, but he also knows whereof he speaks, as a veteran of many TransPac races (he once set the Los Angeles to Honolulu monohull time record). His charges' six-month adventure includes living together in a posh Hawaiian home while completing their training, the selection of a captain, the captain's leadership in choosing the alternates, and the race itself, a weekalong test of endurance, focus, and strategic judgment. The doc's biggest problem is that the subject matter poses a serious editing challenge. This probably should have been a reality show: it's impossible fully to convey the six-month experience and allow us to get to know each of the fifteen finalists in a sleek ninety-eight minutes.
Given that imposing challenge, Morning Light does the job about as well as it could be done. Though only a few of the sailors take on much specificity, directors Mark Monroe and Paul Crowder wisely turn their sights to what they have all have in common: a hunger for challenges and a love of the sport that the film makes infectious. If this documentary doesn't make you want to give sailing a try, I don't know what would.
On Blu-ray, Morning Light looks mighty fine. The footage that comprises the film is variable, including both HD and film photography. There's a bit of digital noise here and there, but generally the picture is detailed, sharp and colorful. Just as the picture was beholden to seafaring conditions, so too is the audio, but the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 must be considered definitive, and does a swell job of making the dialogue as clear as possible while also capturing the ambient sounds of a sea voyage.
A couple of substantial bonus features add value to the disc. In "Stories from the Sea Hosted by Jason Earles" (28:32, HD), filmmakers and crew talk about training in navigation and how to troubleshoot mechanical breakdowns, medical emergencies, and "man overboard." We're also made privy to the work of the twelfth crew member, nautical cameraman Rick Deppe. One of the young sailors, Steve Manson, gets a profile, and the featurette wraps up with Earles (Hannah Montana) interviewing executive producers Roy Disney and Leslie DeMeuse.
The ESPN Special "Morning Light: Making the Cut" (41:56, HD) details the winnowing of 30 applicants to a 15-member team, with a selection process that includes tests of skill but, more importantly, observation of character through team-building exercises.
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