This new family drama from the director of He's Just Not That Into You and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is "inspired by an incredible true story that united the world" could very well please Free Willy devotees. But, this high-concept, nostalgic studio fare, as earnest and sweet as it might seem, isn't very well told.
Big Miracle stars John Krasinski (NBC's The Office) and Drew Barrymore (HBO's grand Grey Gardens and Going The Distance), and when the filmmakers keep the focus on a family of imperiled gray whales nicknamed "Fred," "Wilma" and "Bam-Bam" while set at the end of the Reagan Administration.
Like The Grey the setting is Alaska with enough scenery lushly photographed as Krasinski's reporter Adam Carlson has a professional atrophy being away from the big stories while based in Barrow. It doesn't help that he's just split up from his environmentalist girlfriend Rachel (Barrymore). So, Adam gets his news from the satellite feed of the continental U.S. while keeping an eye on young (Inupiat) native Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney).
Luckily, during coverage of an everyday story, Adam comes upon the aforementioned mammals trapped in a relatively small hole (getting smaller with the advent of the winter solstice) under the Arctic icecap adjoining the sea lanes need to reach the warmer climate of Baja, California and provides footage for his station.
Though Carlson's producer doesn't think much of the piece, NBC grabs it and there is a distressing call to help the whales who are finding it harder to get to the surface to survive. Rachel, an activist to boot, has gotten exposure for being adamant against oil drilling in remote areas of the state by notable industrialist J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), easily manages to get back into Adam's life to help get the creatures on their proper migratory path.
Some of the conflict needed to make this happen includes persuading local whaling captains from "harvesting" them and McGraw by his needling wife Ruth (Kathy Baker) to request the National Guard to get a hovercraft ice breaker on site. Big Miracle probably will be most touching to those unfamiliar with the story altogether, as youngsters will like how well the whales are represented in a lifelike way (thanks to some decent CGI and visual effects crews) so close to their human counterparts even as their chances for survival worsens. "Bam-Bam" has been hurt when handled by a net and can't help repeatedly hitting the ice with his nose.
Those of the Greenpeace ilk like Rachel, a too shrill Barrymore, will recall with little fondness the ecological policy employed by Reagan (not very well impersonated), as the drama is recreated with constant national news coverage. Too much filler is applied by Kwapis and his scribes to include an ineffectual governor (before Sarah Palin), a concerned Soviet vessel captain, a cocky National Guard pilot, a White House staffer, as well as two Minneapolis men fabricating much needed ice-melting apparatus. When she's not promoting the latest in cosmetics, Kristen Bell isn't given enough to do thespian-wise as an ambitious reporter Adam is seeing.
Kwapis and his crew do their utmost to promote the urgency of the situation and gelid environment with the hordes in for the rescue in their Arctic weather gear. Unhappily, the way the characters relate is hardly a positive with Krasinski (so reliable on the noted mockumentary sitcom and in some pics like Away We Go but not in Kwapis's earlier License To Wed) and Barrymore continuously stymied in the mutual charisma department.
As one can tell from the title, the final product is more unimaginative and bloated than surprising or even revelatory; one that is decent, yet mediocre that amuses mostly from the attempts to capitalize on an onslaught of tourism. Enough for those interested in staying through the end credits to find out the usual, if pleasantly informative "where are they now.