The best thing I can say about Big Miracle—the latest, with Dolphin Tale (2011) and Free Willy (1993), in uplifting marine-mammal drama—is that it’s perfectly fine for exactly what it is. That might seem like a bit of a back-handed compliment, but for a movie that I assumed would be a raging schmaltz-fest, it’s never actually groan-inducingly saccharine. And it is surprisingly entertaining—for what it is.
Given the family-friendly demographic the film is aiming for, this is actually no small feat. For once, we have a family film that’s “based on a true story” which actually takes that idea seriously. In fact, there was a family of gray whales trapped under the ice outside a small Alaskan village in 1988—we even have the actual news footage cut into the film. But Big Miracle goes beyond this, having enough sense—or even nerve, given audience expectations—to be honest, and not always take the sentimental, easy route in telling the story.
There’s also a sense of moral ambiguity laced through the film: The tree-hugging Greenpeace worker (Drew Barrymore) who wants so dearly to save these whales is often pushy and irrational; the Inuits who hunt whales start out painted as villains, but the complexity of their motivations and traditions soon come to light; the people with money—oil companies, the Reagan administration—who have the pull to help the whales end up doing so less out of the kindness of their hearts and more for PR and political reasons. And, in the grand tradition of Bambi (1942) and Old Yeller (1957), Big Miracle isn’t afraid to let one of its animals die.
Nevertheless, the film can never quite shake loose from its family-friendly, uplifting roots. It’s a likable film, and it moves along quickly thanks to an overstuffed plot, but this doesn’t keep director Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You) from shooting the film with some of in the flattest, most uninspired cinematography imaginable. At the same time, there’s a snide bent to the film’s politics, which seems in sharp contrast to the film’s otherwise warm-hearted nature. The photo of Ronald Reagan used in the film has to be the goofiest one they could find, while an end-credits gag featuring actual footage of a young Sarah Palin—one which ties the future Alaska governor to an alleged one-night stand she had with future NBA star Glen Rice—is so esoteric that it verges on the absurd. Taken all together, Big Miracle is a pleasant—if occasionally odd—entry in the family-friendly genre, but it’s not a particularly good or memorable movie beyond that. Rated PG for language.