Blu-ray Review: ‘Big Miracle’ Turns Cynical Satire Into Simpering Hokum

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CHICAGO – At a time when even the US Congress can’t work together to solve a problem, Ken Kwapis’ ham-fisted cinematic “Kumbaya” session, “Big Miracle,” feels especially cheap. It’s the latest stinker to solidify the theory that a stamp of approval from Heartland Truly Moving Pictures is the equivalent of a scarlet letter for any viewers desiring to be truly moved.

This film is as uninspired as its title suggests, but it’s also surprisingly unpleasant. When three grey whales get trapped in pack ice near Point Barrow, Alaska, a crowd of self-serving opportunists descend on the action. A vapid news anchor (Kristen Bell) views the potential tragedy as a bona fide career booster. An oil baron (Ted Danson) hopes his support will earn him the rights for off-shore drilling. A couple of dim-witted Midwestern entrepreneurs (James LeGros and Rob Riggle) attempt to garner publicity for their new de-icing machine, and so forth.

HollywoodChicago.com Blu-ray Rating: 1.5/5.0
Blu-ray Rating: 1.5/5.0

There’s a great satire about the parasitic nature of the media buried deep within this simpering love-fest. Not a single character in the picture appears to be invested in the plight of the whales, with the sole exception of Greenpeace environmentalist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), who comes off like a shrill drip. She instantly sees through the faux concern of her adversaries (when a Reagan aide praises the oil industry for creating jobs, Rachel retorts, “At the expense of everything else!”), but the film backs away from any issue that would be deemed controversial. We’re supposed to believe that these carpetbaggers actually start to care about the whales, but the screenplay by “Shaggy Dog” scribes Jack Amiel and Michael Beglar forgets to portray this pivotal transition. What’s worse is that the whales themselves are impossible to care about anyway. They’re just a trio of bobbing heads devoid of personality, and when Rachel dives underwater, they magically transform into digital beings. Poor John Krasinski (who previously teamed up with Kwapis for the awful “License to Wed”) is reduced to trading barbs with a smart-mouthed kid (Ahmaogak Sweeney), who serves no purpose in the screenplay aside from attracting a young demographic. Without this kid, “Big Miracle” would consist entirely of adults arguing in rooms before tending to the three bobbing heads.

John Krasinski and Ahmaogak Sweeney star in Ken Kwapis’ Big Miracle.
John Krasinski and Ahmaogak Sweeney star in Ken Kwapis’ Big Miracle.
Photo credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

The plot is based on an actual 1988 whale rescue dubbed “Operation Breakthrough,” which captured the attention of the public, and consequently inspired ratings-hungry networks to fly anchors up to Point Barrow. The tremendous media focus that this unfortunate but admittedly inconsequential incident obtained was a forbearer to the appalling non-story line-ups that clog the modern day news cycle in America. In an embittered daze, Bell’s character contemplates changing her profession if she keeps being assigned mindless “cat in a tree”-type stories like the rescue of the trapped whales. But she swiftly forgets her dreams of integrity as soon as she stumbles upon an opportunity to snag an exclusive before her slimy competitor (John Michael Higgins) does. In the epilogue, we’re informed that Bell eventually landed a gig at a major news network. Hooray.

A would-be heartwarming moment occurs when reporter Krasinski interrupts Barrrymore in the middle of an on-camera diatribe. She’s talking about issues that actually matter, but Krasinski warns her that the truth causes people to turn the channel. So instead, she delivers a weepy monologue about how whales are just like humans, and receives Krasinski’s full approval. This moment is supposed to be sweet and touching, but it left me feeling deeply depressed. Apparently Kwapis didn’t realize that he was handed a script closer in spirit to “Ace in the Hole” than “Dolphin Tale.” Yet, to be fair, Kwapis deserves applause for directing a woefully underrated, infinitely superior film about an endangered animal and the ragtag group of weirdos that attempt to save it. That was 1985’s “Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird.” Needless to say, I felt a whole lot more sympathy for Big Bird.

Big Miracle was released on Blu-ray and DVD on June 12, 2012.
Big Miracle was released on Blu-ray and DVD on June 19, 2012.
Photo credit: Universal Studios Home Entertainment

“Big Miracle” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.40:1 aspect ratio), accompanied by English, French and Spanish audio tracks, and includes a Blu-ray, DVD and digital copy of the film. A single, two-sided disc functions as both the Blu-ray and DVD, though only the Blu-ray side includes any extras. Kwapis provides generic intros for a 7-minute gallery of deleted scenes that include more footage of the cuddly oil baron defending the whales while still intending to rape their environment. The highlight is a Christopher Guest-like sketch where Higgins interviews a bachelor whose obsession with whale figurines builds to the disc’s only laugh. A 21-minute behind-the-scenes peek details the use of animatronic whales on location, while another featurette proves that Barrymore’s mannerisms were not all that far removed from her real-life counterpart, Cindy Lowry. In fact, many of the script’s most outlandish subplots, such as the abrupt romance between Col. Boyer (Dermot Mulroney) and Reagan’s executive assistant for Cabinet Affairs, Kelly Meyers (Vinessa Shaw), were true. The character of Meyers was based on Bonnie Carroll, who attests to the fact that she detected chemistry with her future husband the first time they talked on the phone. Yet the script proves that truth can so easily register as cliché when not dealt with in an engaging or authentic way.

It’s on the audio commentary track where Kwapis truly shines. His observations are so eloquent that they sound as if they had been carefully prepared and outlined beforehand. The track is so meticulously detailed that it ends up illuminating the precise reason why the film left such a godawful taste in my mouth. Based on Tom Rose’s 1989 book, “Freeing the Whales,” the script took a grand total of 15 years to make it to the big screen. In its early drafts, the script took a cynical and satirical look at the media circus that enveloped the isolated Arctic village, but producers were worried that the approach would alienate viewers. Thus, the tone was dramatically altered, resulting in a blandly upbeat and thoroughly sanitized crowd-pleaser. This misguided attempt at broadening the film’s appeal failed to have any redeeming impact on the film’s dismal box office numbers. Kwapis admits that the local Inupiat villagers in Point Barrow view the events depicted in his film as a laughably inexplicable “invasion of the outsiders.” I can’t help but share in their bewilderment.

‘Big Miracle’ is released by Universal Studios Home Entertainment and stars Drew Barrymore, John Krasinski, Ted Danson, Kristen Bell, Dermot Mulroney, Vinessa Shaw, Tim Blake Nelson, John Michael Higgins and Kathy Baker. It was written by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler and directed by Ken Kwapis. It was released on June 19, 2012. It is rated PG.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Matt Fagerholm

By MATT FAGERHOLM
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
matt@hollywoodchicago.com

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