By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Maybe we're spoiled around here by Winter and her Dolphin Tale, an inspiring true-sealife survival flick filmed around Tampa Bay at the same time Big Miracle was shot in Alaska. You get the feeling that Ken Kwapis' movie about rescuing gray whales trapped in ice wouldn't reach theaters now, if Dolphin Tale hadn't become a surprise hit.
The two movies couldn't be more alike in eco-theme and different in execution. Dolphin Tale showed how Winter's rehabilitation reverberates for countless disabled people. Big Miracle isn't about saving whales as much as people using their predicament to further personal aims. Try explaining that to kids.
A local television reporter sees his chance to land a network job. An oil executive sees a public relations ploy to make himself appear concerned about the environment. Inventors smell a way to promote their new discovery. Environmentalists demand nature's protection although nature and not man is the reason these whales are stuck in the first place. Sometimes in the circle of life animals die and humans have to live with it.
And what about the whales? Well, they're nowhere nearly as adorable as Winter, who played herself for most of Dolphin Tale. These whales are entirely portrayed by animatronics, hydraulics and CGI replicas, without a hint of Winter's natural charisma. Honestly, they're not even cute, so scarred and barnacled that they're likelier to earn "ewwws" than "awwws."
Big Miracle takes place in 1988, in remote Barrow, Alaska, where the indigenous Inupiat tribe has lived on whale meat for centuries. Tradition means nothing to outsiders when a trio of whales — parents and son — finds themselves trapped in fast-frozen waters and unable to reach their annual migration route. If not for TV reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) spying the whales the tribe might be food-stocked for the winter.
Adam unethically stirs the plot by inviting Greenpeace activist and his former girlfriend, Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), to mount a rescue mission. She finagles the necessary equipment from oil baron J. W. McGraw (Ted Danson), who's just looking for a photo op. The mission expands into an international event, with the United States and Soviet Union testing their new glasnost policy of cooperation. These aren't acts of kindness as much as opportunities to promote agendas.
Things go wrong then right then wrong again, with each uptick in fortune promising an earlier conclusion yet to no avail. There are too many convenient romances, trumped-up crises and reversals of conscience to clear up while those poor whales suffer. Big Miracle isn't an entirely bad movie but a wholly misguided one.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.