(by Dustin Putman
Innocent wildlife in danger. A community that ultimately rallies to fight for their survival. A feel-good, PG-rated sudser based on true events. End credits that feature footage of the real-life people who have just been portrayed on screen. "Big Miracle" is one of those formulaic, bare-minimum efforts that confuses meaning well for being worthwhile. As directed by Ken Kwapis (2009's "He's Just Not That Into You") and written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler (2006's "The Shaggy Dog"), the film merrily goes on its straightforward way, hitting all the archaic touchstones of the genre without actually succeeding at getting the viewer to care. By not taking the time to "humanize" the imperiled creatures, as it were, such a narrative is dead in the water. A romantic side dish to the action is even more barren and ineffectual. 1993's "Free Willy" or even 2011's "Dolphin Tale," this is not. Article continues below
Journalist Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) has been in the tiny northern Alaska town of Barrow for several years as he prepares a documentary on its snow-covered land and people when he comes upon a more immediate, can't-miss story: three grey whales—two adults and a baby—are trapped in six inches of rapidly forming ice. He immediately calls his ex-girlfriend, Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), a tireless Greenpeace activist who can't get there fast enough. With the news quickly spreading, Rachel's arrival coincides with an onslaught of media attention and powerful big-wigs—like ambitious but underappreciated Los Angeles news reporter Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell) and Texas oil tycoon J. W. McGraw (Ted Danson)—looking to take advantage of a delicate situation. The heart of the matter, though, are the whales, and as Adam and Rachel struggle to find a way to break them free or move them to safety, time is rapidly running out.
Based on the non-fiction book "Freeing the Whales" by Thomas Rose, "Big Miracle" is a dry, undercooked affair. Its attempts to warm the heart come off as a tad frostbitten, instead, the mammals at the center doing nothing but literally popping their heads out of the water on occasion for quick cameos. The three whales are named Fred, Wilma and Bam-Bam (isn't that aborable?), but otherwise there is no consequential connection between man and animal for the viewer to become attached to. When Adam asks Rachel why their lives mean so much to her when deer and squirrels, for example, are shot every day, her reply that they're large and vulnerable holds no logic. Are deer not vulnerable in the woods during hunting season? Or is she simply prejudiced against smaller-sized animals? The picture comes up wanting time and again, failing to reason the protagonists' motives and unable to muster emotions not because Fred, Wilma and Bam-Bam aren't worth saving, but because the film doesn't want to understand them enough to make them more than manipulative gimmicks.
John Krasinski is no doubt a perfectly affable fellow, but his performances have fallen the way of the terminally bland save for two singular instances—his lovely, career-best work in 2009's "Away We Go" and his charming, eyes-of-the-audience supporting turn in 2011's "Something Borrowed." As Adam Carlson, Krasinski brings no spark to his scenes, no common connection with his character to make him more than an afterthought. He usually looks like he's wishing he were somewhere else. As the tree-hugging Rachel Kramer, Drew Barrymore (2010's "Going the Distance") is earnest enough to be difficult to fault, yet also underwritten enough to not come off as memorably as she usually does. Barrymore's Rachel is mostly business, giving her few chances to explore who she is and what she wants when she's not racing around trying to save the world. The very idea that director Ken Kwapis situates the movie as a love story, too, is close to laughable since Krasinski and Barrymore couldn't have less romantic chemistry if they tried. The viewer never gets an idea of why these two originally broke up, and no time is dedicated to bringing them back together as anything other than friends. Thus, by the time Adam is saying to Rachel at the end, "I can't imagine my life without you," it feels especially forced and disingenuous.
If John Krasinski and Drew Barrymore are general dullards, leave it to the side players to give things a much-needed push. With the plight of the whales never diverging from the languid and basic, it is the film's more believable, even cynical look at opportunism in the face of real-world drama that keeps things remotely interesting. Kristen Bell (2010's "You Again") is excellent as reporter Jill Jerard, a woman who knows that in order to get ahead and earn respect within her profession, she may have to sell the occasional piece of her soul. Oil magnate J. W. McGraw, well-played by Ted Danson (2008's "Mad Money"), is guilted by his sympathetic wife (Kathy Baker) to travel to Barrow in support of the whale rescue—a bid to make him look better in the public's eye. Meanwhile, even some of the locals push back against the complicated rescue that becomes a worldwide story, seeing the whales as a source of food rather than worthy of keeping their freedom. Also figuring into the outskirts of the story are Col. Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney), called in to helicopter the hover barge that needs moving, and presidential rep Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw, looking like a dead-ringer for Terasa Palmer's Tori Frederking in 2011's "Take Me Home Tonight").
"Big Miracle" wastes a prime time period (it's set in 1988, but is drearily bereft of era-specific details save for an embarrassing moment where Ronald Reagan calls up Mikhail Gorbachev and says, "Gorby? It's Ronnie!") and, although it stays faithful to the true story in one downbeat instance, there is an overwhelming gush of predictability that renders the proceedings grindingly by-the-numbers. By not getting the chance to become emotionally attached to the whales, they might as well be nameless, one-note chopping blocks in a slasher flick. The same could be said for Adam and Rachel, who dopily fall in love because the screenplay demands as much after paying it next to no mind for the past 100 minutes. Right down to the banal title, "Big Miracle" yearns for its audience to walk away stirred and inspired and feeling just right. A great deal more pressing for viewers will be what's next on the day's agenda.