Big Miracle is sort of like a bear hug from an uncle you haven't seen in forever: mostly sweet, kinda overpowering, and oodles of good-natured fun for the whole family until you forget about it twenty seconds later.
I mean that in a good way. Well, kind of, but I'll get into that whole thing a little later.
In case you've already forgotten what that movie with the aggressively generic title is about, Big Miracle is set in the sleepy, frostbitten town of Barrow, Alaska all the way back in 1988. Smalltime TV personality Adam
Carlson (John Krasinski) is spending a week up that way, hammering out hokey local interest stories about the logistics of shipping avocadoes to the northernmost Mexican restaurant in the U.S. an' stuff. While humoring a local tyke (Ahmaogak Sweeney), Adam stumbles upon a family of whales trapped in the ice. You can call them Fred, Wilma, and Bam-Bam (and not Pebbles 'cause this baby whale's got boy parts). Adam scores another news piece for his reel -- maybe his ticket into a market someone's actually heard of -- and he gets ready to ship out for whatever's next on his Alaskan adventure. Oh, but before he can make it out the door, Tom Brokaw is introducing Adam's story on the NBC Nightly News. The plight of these three whales quickly becomes an overnight, worldwide sensation. Before you know it, Barrow has gone from a speck on a map to a feeding-frenzy for 150 journalists from all across the globe.
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Everyone wants a piece of these whales. I kind of mean that in the most literal sense too, with some of the area's indigenous people wanting to slaughter these trapped creatures for food. Most folks, though, just look at them as a shot at a paycheck or desperately needed good PR. The only person invading Barrow who seems to have the whales' best interests at heart is environmental activist and once-and-future-love-interest Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore). See, Rachel and Adam used to date, and even though the temperature's 50 below up in Barrow, I've got a feeling things are about to heat up between these two! Oooh, wait, I meant to say that Rachel and Adam are gonna have a whale of a good time together! Thanks, I'll be here all night, and don't forget to tip your waitress.
...but, yeah, Big Miracle clocks in at an hour and forty-seven minutes, so if you think it's going to be as simple as whacking a big chunk of frozen stuff with an oversized icepick, you've got another thing coming. These whales don't have the strength to break through the ice on their own, not even to surface for air. They can't stay submerged long enough to make it to the open sea, the holes in the ice they need to breathe are quickly freezing over, and their bodies are becoming increasingly bruised and battered as the days drag on. It's just a matter of time before the whales succumb, and Barrow's remoteness and devastating cold threaten even the most Herculean of efforts to free them. What they really need is a ::gulp!:: big miracle!
I get that you might be rolling your eyes right about now and maybe wondering why Universal didn't just go ahead and call it Heartwarming Family Movie instead, but Big Miracle really does have more going for it than you might expect. Since a big part of the story is how many people's lives the world over were touched by the plight of these whales, the cast is kind of sprawling, and that opens the door for small roles and cameos by the always-welcomed likes of Andrew Daly, Ted Danson, Tim Blake Nelson, Stephen Root, Kathy Baker, Vinessa Shaw, Dermot Mulroney, John Michael Higgins, and Rob Riggle. If their names don't ring a bell, you'll know 'em when you see 'em. Pinky swear. As for the main cast, you can't help but like John Krasinski seeing as how that's kind of his whole deal. I'm thrilled to see Kristen Bell pop up in something other than a one-and-a-half-star romantic comedy, and even if the trade-off is poofy hair and shoulder pads in an '80s period piece, I'll
gladly take it. I didn't say anything about Bell's character in my rambling plot synopsis since her more-successful-but-still-struggling-to-prove-herself news reporter isn't exactly integral to the plot. Drew Barrymore is Drew Barrymore, and I'll leave it up to you as to whether or not that's a good thing.
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Big Miracle actually being lensed in Alaska makes the film's setting feel less like an interchangeable backdrop and more like a character in its own right. Shooting on location in this way also opens the door to incorporating a great many native Inupiat people into the cast, among them a couple of central roles. The production design and special effects are terrific, and the whales themselves are so masterfully recreated that I never felt as if I was just watching some CG model spat out of a render farm in Palo Alto. Visual effects often have such an unmistakeably digital look to them that it pulls me out of the movie entirely, but never once was that the case with Big Miracle's skillful blend of digital wizardry and animatronics. The whales in the context of the story inspire awe and admiration from everyone who comes across them, and the spectacular effects work here has much the same impact on the audience as well.
I also appreciate that Big Miracle doesn't try to shoehorn any sort of villain into the mix. Even the money-grubbing oil baron that Ted Danson plays is quickly won over to the side of the whales. I can't help but find it interesting that virtually every single character in the movie -- seriously, Drew Barrymore's Rachel may be the only exception, and you could even argue against that -- has some ulterior motive but is soon fighting tirelessly to free the whales. The true nemeses here are time and ice, and Big Miracle doesn't lose sight of that. I'm further impressed that the natives' stance on whaling is treated with such respect, and they remain a vital part of the film even when Big Miracle moves beyond that argument.
Admittedly, though, Big Miracle often does feel as if it's been
deliberately calculated to be the "charming feel-good movie that the whole family can enjoy!" that the marketing copy on the flipside of the Blu-ray case makes it out to be. The screenplay is riddled with some of the clunkiest, most stilted, and most unnatural dialogue I've come across in ages. I mean, I'm not exactly a charter member of the Drew Barrymore fanclub, but I can't blame her for not being able to sell a line as clumsily written as "Come on, Bam-Bam: surface!" Though it's easy to make an immediate emotional connection with the whales, Big Miracle's focus is otherwise scattered across so many characters that few of them get enough screentime to really resonate. ...and, well, you know how these sorts of family movies usually go. You get your big moment of triumph punctuated by soaring strings in the score, there's a right-before-the-credits smooch as the love triangle shakes out precisely the way you think it will, and the movie sometimes feels so labored that you can practically picture director Ken Kwapis lurched over there in the corner, tugging furiously at your heartstrings. All of that's to be expected. What's unexpected is that it kinda works. Even though the strain of the effort shows, Big Miracle is sweet, it's earnest, and it is indeed a charmer. I found myself genuinely caring enough about the whales that, even though I already knew the outcome of the real-life ordeal that inspired the movie, the stakes still matter.
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So, I guess I'm stuck waffling here. Big Miracle can be cloying and labored, but it still manages hit its marks quite a lot of the time. This is a movie with scattered focus and indefensibly clumsy dialogue, and yet it manages to suck me into the whales' plight. There's apparently enough substance for me to fill that many paragraphs, most of which aren't snarky jabs, and I never would've guessed that'd happen. I guess the short answer is that there are movies for families, and then there are family movies. You know what the difference is, and Big Miracle is unmistakeably the latter. It's one to curl up and watch on a Saturday night with the kids. I found plenty to like about Big Miracle, but it's not the sort of movie that stays with you. If I didn't have to write this review, it would've been a distant memory about eighteen seconds after the end credits started their upward crawl. I don't regret watching Big Miracle or anything, but I can't really envision a scenario in which I'd give it another spin. Movies like this exist to be rented, so you know where this is going: Rent It.
Big Miracle looks pretty terrific in high-def, boasting cinematography that's consistently crisp and detailed throughout. Despite the frigid setting, the decision to shoot on 35mm lends Big Miracle a welcomed warm, filmic texture that's wholly preserved on Blu-ray. Its colors are rendered flawlessly, and, bolstered by robust black levels, contrast packs a wallop throughout as well. The authoring of this Blu-ray disc isn't dragged down by any hiccups in the compression, edge enhancement, or excessive filtering. Universal generally does a spectacular job with their day-and-date releases, and Big Miracle is no exception.
Big Miracle's AVC encode spans both layers of this BD-50 disc, and the image is letterboxed to preserve the film's theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1. This is a hybrid disc with an anamorphic widescreen DVD on the flipside.
I'm not really left with any complaints about Big Miracle's six-channel, 24-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack either. It's backed by a surprisingly throaty low-end, packing far more of a kick than I'd expect out of a garden-variety family movie. Cliff Eidelman's score in particular showcases a distinctness and clarity that DVD could never hope to deliver. The rear channels don't draw too much attention to themselves, often content to reinforce the score and leave it at that, but they have their standout moments: the whirring blades of a helicopter taking off, howling wind that's certain to give listeners chills, and, of course, a particularly triumphant splash. The film's dialogue is rendered cleanly and clearly throughout, never finding itself buried or muddled in the mix. Director Ken Kwapis gushes about the sound design of Big Miracle, and he's not wrong, especially when it comes to how great the whales sound. A very solid effort.
Also offered here are lossy DTS dubs (768kbps) in French and Spanish. Subtitles, meanwhile, are served up in English (SDH), Spanish, and French.
- Deleted Scenes (7 min.; HD): Director Ken Kwapis introduces each of the four scenes in this reel, explaining why they were snipped out of the final cut. He mentions several more deleted and extended scenes in his audio commentary, but for whatever reason, they didn't find their way onto this Blu-ray disc.
As for what you do get, there's a bit with the reporter-slash-love interest played by Kristen Bell crashing at Adam's place, Ted Danson's blustering oil baron popping up on Larry King, a human interest reporting thingie with a fanatical whale memorabilia collector, and a longer version of a couple of Minnesooooooooootans debating how to pronounce menu items at the Mexican restaurant. It's all kinda cute, but it's not hard to see why they were nixed.
- A "Big Miracle" in Alaska (21 min.; HD): This twenty minute making-of piece delves at length into quite a lot of what it takes to put a movie like Big Miracle together, including its ambitious blend of digital and animatronic effects, rolling cameras in Alaska, the challenging production and set design, authentic costuming, casting, and
well...dealing with the brutal, punishing cold. More insightful than average and well-worth a look.
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- Truth Is Stranger Than Fiction (12 min.; HD): No, really! Big Miracle is based very closely on a true story, and this featurette has the archival news footage to prove it. There are also interviews with several of the real-life people depicted in the film.
- Audio Commentary: Director Ken Kwapis shoulders Big Miracle's commentary all by his lonesome, and it sounds like he's reading notes off a legal pad for close to two hours straight. Kwapis has so many interesting, intriguing things to say, but the flat, canned delivery does make the commentary a bit of a slog. Several very lengthy gaps of dead air don't help a lot with that either. Though perhaps its best left playing in the background rather than actively watched, admirers of the film should find quite a bit here to appreciate. Kwapis does a marvelous job of comparing and contrasting Big Miracle with the real-life events in 1988 that inspired it, speaking at length about each of the flesh-and-blood counterparts to the film's characters, how the scale of the effort to free the whales was actually bigger in reality than what's depicted on celluloid, and oodles of color like the people in this one-hotel-town charging a couple hundred bucks a night for the invading reporters to sleep on their cold, hard floors. Among the other highlights are how the animatronic whales had to be repaired underwater by divers with no engineering experience, spelling out how the movie so dramatically transformed from its cynical, satirical earliest drafts, turning to Broadcast News and Tanner '88 to get their hair and wardrobe of the reporters dead-on, translating an Inupiat prayer, and noting that this film marked the last effects work by the late, great Kerner Optical.
Big Miracle comes packaged in a glossy cardboard slipcover, and yeah, there's one of those UltraViolet digital copy codes tucked inside.
The Final Word
There are family movies, and then there are family movies. Big Miracle has that deliberate, calculated feel to it that too many of those flicks do, hitting pretty much every last Family Movie trope along the way and not even pretending to mask its relentless heartstring-tugging. Unexpectedly, though, Big Miracle is sweet and good-natured enough to make up for it. Y'know, the movie does a lot right, and it does a lot wrong. It'd take a pretty big miracle for me to ever give this Blu-ray disc another whirl ::zing!::, but for families looking for something amiable and harmless to help pass a couple of hours, Big Miracle is worth a rental. Rent It.