In what should become a textbook example of how to run a productive meeting, a group of people with nothing in common, except wanting to save a family of three whales trapped beneath arctic ice, bicker over motives. Each is passionate about his or her agenda and all of them are accomplishing nothing until one of them, fed up, barks at them to remember why they are there. Suddenly, everyone is on the same page and though it may or may not be the BIG MIRACLE that the eponymous film refers to, it is an integral part of said miracle, and pretty miraculous in and of itself, considering the lively way in which each of the players has been fully fleshed out.
Based on actual events, this fictionalized account of how the world became invested in the fates of three whales is a feel-good film that is anything but pat, predictable, or saccharine. Neither are the characters, though the potential for stereotypes is rife. The likable television reporter, Adam Carlson (John Krasinski with a Jimmy Stewart-esque, aw-shucks everyman likablilty) with ambitions beyond his Anchorage affiliate who hopes to use the story he stumbles upon to open doors for him, or at least for his demo reel. Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), his ex-girlfriend/Greenpeace activist, and firebrand whose message starts falling on less than deaf ears. The blonde television reporter from Los Angeles (Kristen Bell) who gets no respect despite smarts, drive, and knowing the difference between what real news is and what will get ratings. The oil executive (Ted Danson), with his eye on drilling contracts and a clever wife (Kathy Baker) and the even more clever way she steers him in the right direction. And finally, the local Inupiat tribe who are in tune with nature in every sense and are never for a moment reduced to noble savage or mystical shamans. Malik (John Pingayak), the narrator is, in fact, the heavy metalhead Inupiat kid with big dreams of his own, both short- and long-term. In a sharply written script that is heartfelt and engrossing, motives are not always pure or purely evil, and well-meaning people still have a few lessons to learn.
The audience also becomes invested in these whales. Animatronic puppets play Fred, Wilma, and baby Bam-Bam, but with such tenderness in their eyes in close-up, and such palpable sentience in their movements that it is impossible not to believe they are living beings. The shots of them underwater are stunning, with the sight of the mother whale tenderly lifting her baby to the surface so he can breathe summing up in one sequence why the world should care about their survival as neatly and with no less emotion than Barrymore‘s explanation that is one of the film‘s other emotional high points. The precarious nature of their survival as the ice threatens to cover their only open water, leaving them to drown becomes as suspenseful a cinematic element as any Hitchcock devised. That ice becomes as much a character as the people and the whale family itself, relentless, indifferent, and deadly.
BIG MIRACLE is funny, tear jerking, smart, and not a little subversive with a few well-place jabs at unexpectedly deserving parties as well as a few kudos in a few surprising places. Teaching respect for nature on its own terms, and applauding human nature’s ability to do the right thing while also making a well-deserved buck, it is a breath of fresh air and a bracing wake-up call.