Those of you old codgers (like myself) may remember something Disney used to do called the True Life Adventures. I remember to this day seeing a True Life Adventure about bears (with the animals scratching their backs on trees, something I thought was hilarious) when I was probably four or five and my Dad took me to see Pinocchio. The Adventures were quite frequently the first featurette shown at a Disney film, followed by the main attraction. None other than Roy Disney has taken the True Life Adventure credo to heart and crafted a feature length film with Morning Light, a fitfully interesting documentary on a group of young people he assembled to sail the daunting Transpac race, a 2,500 mile journey from California to Hawaii.
The Transpacific Race (Transpac) may not be that well known to those outside of the sailing community, but to insiders, it's a little like the Iditarod for sledders. A long haul race that forces teams to not only master elements of the weather and tides, but also the loneliness of being in the vast expanses of the Pacific for up to two weeks, the Transpac is a marathon of sorts, and one that Disney, in a life changing event, participated in many years ago.
Morning Light is a sort of Survivor episode gone amok, as it shows the 15 "semifinalists" being whittled down to the final crew that will man (and, yes, woman) the boat (the Morning Light, hence the title of the film). We get a little (too little actually, one of the drawbacks of the film) information about several of the participants, as we're slowly shown the gauntlet they're about to go through, learning exactly what it will take to get the ship from Point A to Point B.
A rigorous six month training period ensues, but the film shortcuts these proceedings so drastically that were it not for the banner that appears giving us a timeline, you'd really have no idea how much time had passed. Everything about the training regimen is fascinating, and these young people are all extremely personable, but this film, like so many other documentaries these days, seems to be edited for the ADHD crowd, with lots of quick cuts and camera tricks to evidently keep the mind (or at least the eye) from wandering too far while actual information is being imparted.
There's also a patently fake quality to at least some of the crew voice-overs, as they offer pithy little sentences that seem, frankly, scripted. Once the massive trip is under way, and we get lots of first person confessionals, the reality quotient is upped considerably, and that helps the film attain at least some passing emotional heft.
Morning Light does best when the boat hits the water. This film is filled with gorgeous scenery, and despite a lot of it being shot in the open sea, there's a surprising variety of footage included. The training months in Hawaii are picturesque, as you might imagine, but the sense of awe and wonder that the ocean segments provide offer something perhaps a little deeper than just magnificent scenery.
This is a film that may have been better as a short form miniseries. That way, more background information on each of the participants could have been included, and the audience could have come to know them all better, and hence care for them more once the long journey begins. As it stands, there's simply too much going on squeezed into too many quick cuts to ever attain any real emotional connection. That's alleviated somewhat at the end of the film when we are shown little snippets of what's happened to the crew since the Morning Light made its Hawaii port (I won't spoil the film by telling what place it took, but I will say it's rather impressive considering the relative youth and inexperience of the sailors).
As it stands, Morning Light, even with its flaws, is sure to be enjoyed by sailing enthusiasts. Whether or not it reaches a broader audience is something I have my doubts about, but Roy Disney may want to go back to the drawing board with this concept and develop a series for The Disney Channel where this idea could really be explored over several weeks, and with considerably more depth. That, I bet, is something that would capture a wide and enthusiastic audience beyond the sailing crowd.