The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary defines “miracle” as “an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs” or “an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment.” Okay, so imagine that, except “big.” I kid Big Miracle—the new PG “Save the Whales” drama starring Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski—but perhaps the title sets an expectation Ken Kwapis’ movie can’t quite deliver. The original title was “Everybody Loves Whales,” which suggests a sitcom nobody wants to see. (Hmm: Kwapis directed Krasinski in thirteen episodes of The Office, and sitcom vets Ted Danson, Stephen Root, Andrew Daly, John Michael Higgins all turn up here.)
Big Miracle recounts a 1988 incident that temporarily gripped network news cycles: a family of three grey whales become trapped in the ice around Barrow, Alaska, sparking a debate as to how and whether to save them. Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) represents for the sentimental anthropomorphizers in the audience (“Even though they’re big and powerful, they’re so much like us. We’re vulnerable, and we get scared, and we need help sometimes, too”).
Rachel gets wind of the whales from her ex-boyfriend Adam Carlson (Krasinski), who breaks the story and, in doing so, creates both romantic and career opportunities. Not only does Rachel rush to the scene, but also Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell), a network news reporter that Adam has eyes for. The halfhearted romantic triangle that ensues isn’t the real story (literally), but the parts that come closer occasionally make Big Miracle interesting. Using Tom Rose’s 1989 book “Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event” as a basis, Jack Amiel and Michael Begler’s script makes room for valid competing viewpoints.
The local Inuit Eskimo community has a longstanding tradition of subsisting off of whale meat, and they reasonably propose harvesting the whales. Since the story rapidly becomes the cause célèbre of network news, the popular decision quickly becomes to expend massive amounts of money and (federal) resources to saving the whales, named “Fred,” “Wilma,” and “Bam Bam.” Aww: scientists may want to study the film for its interaction of warm-fuzzies and below-freezing temperatures.
While milking this situation for maximum emotional engagement, Big Miracle at least acknowledges the absurd lengths of the rescue effort, lightly satirizing media and government and opportunistic big business for allowing the “non-event” to take on outsized importance. Danson brings his practiced brand of likeable jerkiness to the role of a big-oil executive who sees a chance at some good PR, while Root plays the governor shamed into joining Team Whale.
Big Miracle plays best as a passable family flick, enabled by an Eskimo lad (Ahmaogak Sweeney) shadowing Adam everywhere. That the story otherwise downplays the role of the Inuits, in favor of the interlopers played by familiar faces, is just business as usual for mainstream cinema.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]