In last year’s A Dolphin Tale, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick, Jr and Morgan Freeman saved the dolphins. Now, in Big Miracle, Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski and Dermot Mulroney save the whales. Somewhere, the manatees are thinking “What about us?” This disarming family film, which recounts the 1988 international rescue effort to free three gray whales stranded in the ice in Alaska, is warm and soft-edged in all the expected ways — the sort of live-action picture the Walt Disney Co. used to crank out in the 1960s and 70s. But much like the book that inspired it — Tom Rose’s Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Biggest Non-Event — the movie balances its sentimental side with a healthy dose of cynicism.
Yes, a wide range of people put aside their differences and pitched in to help these animals. But they all gained something from it, too. Greenpeace activist Rachel (Barrymore) blackmails politicians to help the cause, or else she will go public and accuse them of not caring (“I’m going to tell the world Ronald Reagan killed those whales!” she shouts when the White House hesitates to lend a hand). Adam (Krasinski) is the local TV reporter in Barrow who breaks the story, then uses his ensuing fame to land a job at the networks.
Ted Danson plays an oil industry tycoon who offers boats and helicopters to the operation free of charge, because money can’t buy that kind of p.r. Vinessa Shaw is the presidential aide who strongly advises the government to get involved, because Reagan’s second term is coming to an end and this cause would do wonders for George Bush’s presidential aspirations.
Even the Soviets join in, because the Cold War isn’t really going their way. Director Ken Kwapis is good at juggling ensemble casts (his credits include He’s Just Not That Into You and episodes of TV’s The Office and Parks & Recreation), and he gives all the characters in Big Miracle enough screen time to make an impression, albeit not always a very deep one. Mulroney is amusing as the military pilot who reluctantly agrees to join the rescue efforts, even though he was hoping for a more dangerous assignment (“Are they at least killer whales?” he asks). Ahmaogak Sweeney steals many scenes as a young Inupiat who starts a nice side business hustling all the out-of-towners for supplies.
Big Miracle packs a lot into its 107 minutes, including romance, relationships, the machinations of big business and the ruthless competition in the TV news industry. But the movie’s central focus are those three whales — a father, mother and baby who may not survive if their would-be rescuers aren’t able to somehow free them from their ice prison five miles away from the open sea. Even if you know how the story turns out, Big Miracle gets to you: This isn’t exactly Marley & Me, but I still was blinking back tears in one scene, and the actors embody their stick-figure characters just enough to make you care about the film’s human protagonists, too.
In any other movie, you would roll your eyes when Barrymore says “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.” But here, the line works, because it is exactly the kind of thing her character would say. Big Miracle even throws in an unexpected bonus, a surprise last-minute cameo that is funny without being the slightest bit mean, just like the rest of this hugely likable movie.
Cast: Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Ted Danson, Vinessa Shaw, Tim Blake Nelson, Ahmaogak Sweeney.
Director: Ken Kwapis.
Screenwriters: Jack Amiel, Michael Begler. Based on the book “Freeing the Whales” by Thomas Rose.
Producers: Tom Bevan, Liza Chasin, Eric Fellner.
A Universal Pictures release. Running time: 107 minutes. Animals in peril, including a really cute baby whale. Opens Friday Feb. 3 at area theaters.