A feel-good whale of a comic tale

A movie so feel-good it cites providence in its title, Big Miracle is like an old Disney family comedy by way of a 1980s news story.

Big Miracle

Two and a half stars (out of four)

Rated: PG

A movie so feel-good it cites providence in its title, Big Miracle is like an old Disney family comedy by way of a 1980s news story.

And it is a whale of a comic tale, if also one overly crowded with characters and incidents.

Sticking to the main facts while fictionalizing many details, it tells of the October 1988 effort by northern Alaskan residents, the U.S. military and two global superpowers to rescue three whales trapped in Arctic ice.

Environmentalists recall the story as a turning point in public understanding of nature’s fragility. But broad-strokes director Ken Kwapis keeps didacticism in check, confining it to Drew Barrymore’s character: shrill Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer, who often alienates the people she needs to win over.

These include her ex-boyfriend Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), an ambitious small-time TV reporter who has been working in Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point of the U.S. He’s been trying to dig up stories that will interest people in the south, maybe even network news bosses, but he has just about run out of angles about life amongst the friendly Inupiat people.

Opportunity knocks with a hunter’s report that a family of whales — a father, mother and baby quickly named Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm — have been surrounded by winter ice that arrived before these majestic creatures could migrate to warmer waters.

The whales need to surface regularly to breathe, but all they have is a rapidly closing pond not much bigger than a small swimming pool.

Too large to be helicoptered to safety, they need to find a way past eight km of ice to reach freedom and survival.

Inupiat whale hunters consider it a stroke of luck and an easy catch, but that’s before Carlson sounds the alarm and the world tunes in.

His reports bring the righteous Kramer and also scoop-hungry media (Kristen Bell pries and poses), PR-seeking oilmen (Ted Danson represents the one per cent gang), put-upon military roughnecks (Dermot Mulroney stiff-upper-lips rescue efforts) and various gawkers and hawkers, including two Minneapolis knuckleheads (Rob Riggle and James LeGros) who have MacGyvered an ice-melting device out of pool-heating equipment.

The many bit players in the film include fictional characters played by John Michael Higgins, Tim Blake Nelson and Stephen Root, and real people seen in vintage news footage: TV heads Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather and a pre-politics Sarah Palin.

The Inupiat people fare better, represented in the main by boy narrator Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney) and his wise grandfather Malik (John Pingayak), who bring spirit and spiritualism to the rescue efforts.

Perhaps most remarkable of all are the whales, animatronic robots that look incredibly real.

Screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler shamelessly but good-heartedly embellish the truth, no doubt egged on by Kwapis, whose lightweight TV and movie credentials include directing the rubber-faced Krasinski in episodes of The Office and the comedy trifle License to Wed.

They’re at their most outrageous in an Oval Office scene where an actor playing then-U.S. president Ronald Reagan calls then-Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, beginning the call with, “Gorby, it’s Ronnie.”

But Big Miracle also adeptly gets the tenor of pre-Internet times, when remote communications were a lot harder and the big TV networks determined what was news and what wasn’t.

We realize that truth of this when the first network broadcast of the whales’ plight happens not out of environmental zeal, but because, in the words of a cynical TV boss, “Brokaw’s a sucker for these stories.”

Peter Howell is a syndicated Toronto Star movie critic.

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