You'd be forgiven for assuming Big Miracle, the new film from Ken Kwapis (He's Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants), to be a made-for-TV movie. Its feel-good fervor and human-interest subject matter - the true tale of three whales trapped beneath the ice off the coast of Alaska in 1988 and the rescue efforts mounted on their behalf - certainly merit the Hallmark seal of approval, and its ensemble cast is littered with small-screen stars. But it opens this week not on the Discovery Channel or Lifetime but theaters - a few thousand of them, in fact. Perhaps that's the "miracle" of which the title speaks.
John Krasinski, taking care not to stray too far from his Office persona, stars as Adam Carlson, a Barrow, Alaska, TV newsman dreaming of the big time when a local boy (Ahmaogak Sweeney) arrives with a story that just might get him there: On the eve of their annual migration, a trio of grey whales have become marooned under the Arctic Circle's fast-forming ice sheet. Incapable of making the four-mile trek to open seas without running out of air, they cling to a shrinking hole in the ice, their only source of oxygen, as time slowly runs out.
No sooner has Adam filed his first report than Barrow is inundated with reporters, turning the plight of the whales into a media cause célèbre. A broad-based coalition is formed to free Fred, Wilma, and Bamm-Bamm, as they come to be nicknamed, bringing together such strange bedfellows as a headstrong environmental activist (Drew Barrymore), a scheming oil magnate (Ted Danson), a White House political operative (Vinessa Shaw), a native Alaskan tribe, and the Soviet navy.
Big Miracle is conceived an inspirational family film, and as such there are the usual array of heart-tugging scenes, but there's also an odd strain of cynicism that permeates it. Hardly a soul in the film, save perhaps for Barrymore's character, embraces the whales' cause with what might be deemed altruistic intentions. Krasinski's anchor eyes the crisis as an opportunity to advance his career, as does a rival reporter, played by Kristen Bell, who arrives on the scene shortly thereafter. Danson's oilman is seeking a public-relations boost, while Shaw's politico hopes to burnish the eco-friendly credentials of George H.W. Bush in advance of his presidential run. Even Krasinski's Eskimo sidekick makes a killing hawking souvenirs and accessories to visiting rubes. The whole thing ends up feeling like some kind of saccharine paean to the virtues of self-interest, a Hallmark special scripted by Ayn Rand.
Big Miracle never quite rises to the level of tear-jerker, despite the best efforts of Barrymore, who all but channels the whales' suffering with her histrionics. Part of the problem, frankly, is that grey whales aren't the most photogenic of species. (There's a reason why their oceanic rivals, the dolphins, get the bulk of the plum movie jobs.) At any rate, their majesty is scarcely apparent when confined to a hole in the ice, depriving Big Miracle of those endearing "Awwwww " moments so crucial to the success of animals-in-peril films.
Still, it's hard not to feel bad for the poor creatures, unsightly as they may be, as their plight is gradually overshadowed in Big Miracle by the contrived human drama that ensues on their periphery. (They are, in many ways, surrogates for the audience.) In the end, when the whales finally escape their icy prison and take leave of their human "helpers," one longs to escape with them.
Hollywood.com rated this film 2 stars.