A peculiar mix of cynicism and sentimentality undermines this 'Save the Whales' melodrama.
Much of the sentiment attached to Ken Kwapis' Big Miracle leans towards pure Capracorn. There is, however, a distinct layer of Billy Wilder-style cynicism lurking just underneath – could we see this as a nature channel riff on Ace in the Hole? This unexpected frisson occurs as characters associated with oil drilling and government help rescue a trio of trapped California gray whales as a PR exercise and nothing more. Even the Greenpeace activist on board to get things moving appears more interested in bossing everybody around and preaching.
Set in 1988 and 'inspired by real events', three whales trapped under an ice flow in Barrow, Alaska, are spotted one day by a bored journalist and the subsequent media storm helps bring the mammals' plight to the fore. A major multi-national operation is mounted to free the majestic beasts before they drown. Communists, Greenpeace, government officials, the media, the US army and local Inuit people all work their socks off to save the creatures. All this is achieved despite mutual distrust, differing agendas, general antagonism and arguing being pretty much a constant feature.
Big Miracle piles a lot on its plate and doesn't always manage to order and compartmentalise. Kwapis' use of multi-strand narrative gives some extra room to a plot that's heavily focused on a single aim, though the tacked-on romantic subplot between Drew Barrymore's Greenpeace spokesperson and John Krasinski's journalist is weak even though a screwball comedy dynamic exists between them.
Barrymore puts in a rather intense and oddball performance as the Greenpeace rep who scares people into doing her biding. Ted Danson is surprisingly good fun as an oil executive who knows a great PR stunt when he sees one and Krasinski channels a James Stewart 'aw-shucks' charm as the journo whose local news piece sparks the mission.
In foregoing the normal Disney route, the schmaltz is limited to several key scenes. There's something decidedly old school about this film and the way it's been handled. Even when the characters are doing the right thing, they're somehow doing it under duress. There is, it transpires, no such thing as altruism.
A drama about whales could go either way.
Much better than the poster or trailer suggests.
A peculiar mix of cynicism and sentimentality.