If a movie is cheesy and knows it's cheesy — if it embraces the soft, gooey texture and pungent aroma of its own fromage — does that make it any more palatable as a meal?
That is the question to ponder while watching "Big Miracle," a rousing, feel-good, family-friendly animal adventure which has the added benefit of being based on a true story. It's a weird hodgepodge, mixing the large cast and the melodrama of a 1970s disaster movie with the small-town quirkiness of "Northern Exposure," with just a touch of the big-haired ambition of "Broadcast News."
At its center are three gray whales — a mother, father and baby who found themselves trapped within the quickly forming Arctic ice near Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in the United States, in 1988. The effort to free them in the open water brought together a disparate alliance of environmental activists, oil executives, journalists, native people and even the Soviets toward the end of the Cold War, and it fascinated viewers worldwide. Director Ken Kwapis ("He's Just Not That Into You," "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") includes archival footage of the "Big Three" anchors in their heyday — Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw and Peter Jennings — reporting the story from the climate-controlled comfort of their New York studios.
Meanwhile, John Krasinski plays Adam, the boyishly enthusiastic local TV reporter who breaks the story. He's been toiling away at the top of the world but would love to get down to "the lower 48," and hopes this is his ticket out of town. He gets some help from an adorable little native boy (Ahmaogak Sweeney) who looks up to him as a big brother as well as from his idealistic ex-girlfriend, Greenpeace leader Rachel (Drew Barrymore).
But soon everyone's invading this small, remote town for a piece of the action, which sets up all the fish-out-of-water scenarios you'd expect. The visitors are ill-equipped for the extreme weather, including Kristen Bell as a self-serious Los Angeles TV reporter who's hoping these trapped whales will carry her to a network. Then there's Ted Danson as an oil executive who wants to drill in the region but directs his considerable financial resources toward the effort in hopes of looking more Earth-friendly. And then there are Rob Riggle and James LeGros as a couple of bumbling buddies from Minneapolis who arrive with their homemade ice-melting contraption; LeGros in particular is doing his best William H. Macy from "Fargo."
Every five minutes some other star shows up in a supporting role. Here's John Michael Higgins as a pompous news anchor; there's Dermot Mulroney as a no-nonsense National Guard colonel. And look: It's Stephen Root playing the governor of Alaska. What makes these two-dimensional types tolerable is that the actors recognize that they're playing two-dimensional types, and they have a little fun with that — not to the point of all-out parody, but enough to let us know that they're in on the joke.
Meanwhile, the locals are consistently bemused by the cluelessness of their visitors. They also gouge the hell out of them for hotel rooms and lunches at the lone restaurant in town.
Joking aside, though, Kwapis creates genuine suspense as the scores of volunteers struggle against time and the elements to free these creatures. Some moments feel hokey and wedged in, like the images of families around the world gathered in front of their televisions, watching with worry. A couple of blossoming romances feel like afterthoughts (although one of them really happened).
Like a whale itself, "Big Miracle" is large and unwieldy — but it also has its moments of splendor.
"Big Miracle," a Universal Pictures release, is rated PG for language. Running time: 107 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.
Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:
G — General audiences. All ages admitted.
PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.
R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.