'Big Miracle' is a true pleaser for the entire family

This image is a scene from "Big Miracle," a film about the rescue of a family of gray whales trapped by rapidly forming ice in the Arctic Circle. The film, which stars Drew Barrymore and Ted Danson opens Feb. 3.

"Big Miracle"
Universal Pictures
1 hour, 47 minutes

This week we have the second of this year's Alaska-centric films, and, if I may say so, the far more important one. "The Grey" was good, but the success or failure of "Big Miracle" could mean much more to the Alaska film industry as a whole. For one, "The Grey" was filmed mostly in Canada, while "Miracle" was filmed almost entirely in-state, using a mostly Alaskan cast and crew. With the Alaska film tax credit extension in discussion in the Legislature, it would mean a lot if this first big budget Hollywood/Alaska endeavor were a hit.


And, if that weren't enough, "Big Miracle" is important for another reason -- it stars none other than me. That's right, I said it. Me. I'm in the movie. Not that it's particularly unique or anything, but yes, I appear, for approximately 5.2 seconds, in a movie alongside Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski. Me and about a thousand other Alaskan extras, but who's counting?

Krasinski is Adam Carlson, a young Anchorage television reporter who hopes that the summer he spent reporting in Barrow, Alaska will be just one rung on a long career ladder. A few days before he is set to return home, Adam happens to notice something strange out on the ice outside of town -- spouting water coming from what is supposed to be solid ice. Moving in closer to investigate, Adam stumbles upon a story that will captivate the entire nation. Three California gray whales have become trapped in the ice during their migration from northern waters down to the Gulf of Mexico. The two adults and an infant are soon dubbed by local biologists as Fred, Wilma, and Bam-Bam. The sea ice has turned into a solid cover stretching five miles to the open ocean, and the only hope the whales have is to keep their current breathing hole open as long as they can.

Adam's story catches the attention of national media, as well as the attention of one Rachel Kramer, Greenpeace activist and former girlfriend, played by Drew Barrymore. Rachel ignores the hopelessness of the situation, and instead begins casting about for a way to rescue the whales, managing to drum up enough pressure that oil company fatcat and entrepreneur J.W. Mcgraw agrees to aid in the effort.

McGraw, played by Ted Danson, is joined by Colonel Scott Boyer, of the Alaska National Guard. Boyer, played by hunky Dermont Mulroney, who hung around after this shoot to make "The Grey," is tasked with hauling McGraw's ice-pulverizing hover barge from Prudhoe Bay to Barrow, using state of the art helicopters to tow it.

But in Alaska, nothing is as simple as it seems, and it'll take a concerted group effort to avoid disaster. And the whole world is watching.

I have a good friend who likes to needle me about reviewing this movie, considering I have such a stake in its success or failure. Like I'm some senator lobbying for a new access ramp off the freeway conveniently leading to my McDonald's franchise, perhaps I should recuse myself from the proceedings.

Well, for the sake of transparency, my stake amounted to about $85 and a case of heatstroke when the rigors of standing around under hot studio lighting all day at West High School proved too much for me.

I clearly remember thinking, as tunnel vision was setting in, "How are these little 85-year-old Native ladies in the giant parka hoods able to do this?" At just about that time, the women started an impromptu cheer for Barrymore. "We love you Drew!!"

I suppose I'm destined to write about movies rather than star in them. Always a bridesmaid...

As far as my opinions of the quality of the film itself, I was a little worried that I wouldn't be able to be properly biased. After all, not only does it involve my and my friends' participation, it's all about Alaska. Hometown pride! Luckily, I wasn't forced to temper my reaction. "Big Miracle" is really pretty good. Not great, but very charming and manages to tell a formulaic story without resorting to the easy cliches of most movies like this.

One of the elements I was most impressed with was the fact that the film manages to have no villains. Drew's Rachel Kramer is irritating and obnoxious, but good-hearted, and Danson's McGraw is boastful and bombastic, but similarly good-hearted. This is a whale rescue story after all, and no one out there is going to work against that. The acting in the film goes from adequate to quite strong. I was most impressed with Malik, played by Alaskan John Pingayak. For a performer with seemingly little to no previous acting experience, Malik's whaler/grandfather character anchors the film and provides a poignant insight into the Native peoples of the North Slope. I was much reminded of Chief Dan George who made such an impression in '70's westerns "The Outlaw Josey Wales" and "Little Big Man."

Not so good is the screenplay itself, unfortunately. The dialogue is often cringe-worthy, and Barrymore is given the lionshare of obnoxious lines to deliver. This is mitigated somewhat, however, by the fact that the film never delves too deeply into real characterization, and keeps things mostly surface level. Minnesotans might be offended by the "doncha know" cliche portrayal of the de-icing hometown heroes Karl Hootkin and Dean Glowacki, but for me it added to the light, almost cartoon feel of the movie. Somehow bad dialogue doesn't sound quite so bad when the characters delivering it seem less like real people and more like quirky archetypes.

I would also like to take issue with the complete lack of romantic chemistry between Krasinski and Barrymore, but maybe the editors noticed this too, because that storyline is seriously truncated.

Overall, I like "Big Miracle" because it's a family film. It's a family film in the true sense of the word. Your 4-year-old will like this movie (mine did) but not at the expense of your evening out. "Big Miracle" is fun, sweet, and completely inoffensive. While it may not set the world on fire, let's hope that it at least makes enough of a profit to encourage Hollywood to come back up and try it again.
Grade: B+

"Big Miracle" is rated PG for whale peril and mild language.

Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.