Big surprise: This whale tale is a winner

The success of last year’s “Dolphin Tale” proved this theorem: Imperiled marine animals + true-ish story + workmanlike sincerity + happy ending = a hit. Will the equation hold for director Ken Kwapis’ whale movie “Big Miracle”?

Well. “Big Miracle” is surprisingly good, though the “surprisingly” part betrays certain low-bar expectations going in. So be it. Kwapis (“He’s Just Not That Into You,” “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants”) exceeds those expectations handily while juggling an ambitious number of characters and agendas — and without demonizing any of them. Not the drilling-rights Big Oil magnate, not the Greenpeacenik, not the fur-hooded jackals of the press, not the whaling Inupiat tribe. And certainly not the three California gray whales trapped under the ice off the coast of the United States’ northernmost town, Barrow, Alaska.

This was the Chilean miners’ story of its day, a juicy, apolitical suspense drama that caught the sympathies of millions at the fluke end of the Cold War. In 1988, three grays were discovered under the ice-covered Beaufort Sea a few miles from open water. Local news turned into regional news, then national, then global. With the blessing of the Reagan administration, the Alaskan National Guard attempted one manner of ice-breaking rescue; the Soviet Navy helped in the clinch. A couple of guys from Minnesota with a homemade de-icing machine trekked to Barrow to help.

The screenplay by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler takes what it likes from Thomas Rose’s nonfiction account “Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World’s Greatest Non-Event” and cooks up the rest. (Per Rose’s “non-event” subtitle, whales being trapped under ice was nothing new; in this instance, however, the media machine was around to sell it.) The result is more about heart than the human comedy, but the script is cleverly balanced and structured.


The invented triangle at the center of “Big Miracle” features Drew Barrymore as a Greenpeace organizer and anti-drilling activist, whose ex-boyfriend (John Krasinski) is a TV news reporter gathering feature fodder in Barrow. He’s about to return to Anchorage, harboring hopes of moving to the Lower 48, when the biggest break of his career swims up and blows icy water in his face. “Brokaw’s a sucker for these stories!” says one character, predicting a long life for the media coverage of the whales and those aiding their rescue. Kristen Bell is a fish-out-of-water L.A. on-air personality working the story; there’s also a blatant and not entirely successful bid to add a native Alaskan preteen (Ahmaogak Sweeney) as demographically appealing narrator.

Much of “Big Miracle” feels calculated, but Kwapis, his writers and the ensemble achieve a considerable amount within the calculation. For one thing, there’s film newcomer John Pingayak, a charismatic natural as the leader of the Inupiat whale hunters. For another, there are the whales, and the way Kwapis and his designers chose to depict their plight. This is old-school stuff, a convincing blend of animatronics, robotics and hydraulics, with some digital design work but not enough to cause a computer-generated headache.

One should never expect the whole or even the partial truth in any film based on a true story. This one tells its sort-of-true version of events in a democratic and humane fashion, by way of a rangy, lively group of competing interests. The supporting cast is rich enough to include Tim Blake Nelson (as a wildlife official) and, for a minute or two, Kathy Baker (as the wife of an oilman, played as a crafty glad-hander by Ted Danson). Kwapis shot “Big Miracle” in and around Anchorage, and even with a fair bit of green-screen fakery the film doesn’t look and feel as if made on laptops in California. Also there’s no attempt to humanize or goo-goo-eyes the whales themselves.

Good call.

MPAA rating: PG (for language)

Running time: 1:47

Opens: Friday