A Whale of a Tale

Sometimes the description of a movie as “Family Friendly” is more of a warning than a recommendation.  The stories could be simplistic pabulum or so sweet they’re physically fattening.  In the 1980’s, animation overcame this and crafted beautiful films that were just as enjoyable for children as they were for adults.  Beauty and the Beast, Wall-E, and Up were gems that transcended the genre to become classic movies that could compete (and beat) most live-action fare.  Live-action films have lagged behind, though you may find one or two good ones, like Finding Neverland or The Little Princess, in the course of a year.

One example currently in theaters, and likely coming to DVD within this year, is Big Miracle.  It is based on the true story of a family of gray whales that get caught by an early winter below the ice near Barrow, Alaska.

Nathan (Ahmaomgak Sweeny) is a young boy who’s being tutored by his grandfather Malik (John Pingayak) in tribal culture, but he is also friends with Adam Carlson (John Krasinski), a TV reporter/cameraman who’s been assigned to Barrow for several months.  Adam is hoping to leave Barrow for another assignment, all with the aim of breaking into big markets or national news.  Then, while out on the ice with Nathan, he stumbles across a family of three gray whales that are huddling around a small hole in the ice.  Without the air hole, they would drown.

The tribes in the Arctic have long hunted a different species of whale, and have a symbiotic relationship with them.  But they’ve never harvested grays, which usually summer in the Arctic and then migrate to Mexico in the winter.  Malik comes to the air hole and realizes the baby whale is ill and the parents stayed past their usual migration time because of that.  Adam contacts Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), a Greenpeace environmental activist – and his former girlfriend – to see if she can get any help from the governor of Alaska (Stephen Root).  But the Governor turns her down.

Meanwhile Adam does a short human-interest story about the whales and sends it off to the parent station in Anchorage.  The story is picked up by both local stations throughout the lower 48 states as well as the networks, turning it into a media sensation that captures the attention of the country.  The whales have been nicknamed Fred, Wilma, and Bam Bam (since the baby whale is a boy).  But even with the attention, there’s a question whether the whales can be saved.

In some ways it’s strange that it took almost 25 years for this story to make it onto the screen.  It’s based on a book, Freeing the Whales by Thomas Rose, that was published in 1989.  However, this may be filed under “good things come to those who wait.”  The movie, directed by Ken Kwapis (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, He’s Just Not That Into You) working from a script by the writing team of Jack Amiel & Michael Begler, balances the multiple factors in the rescue attempt and presents a clear story that tugs at your heart strings.  Archival footage from news reports is blended into the movie beautifully, highlighting the reality of the story.

Most impressive are Ahmaomgak Sweeny and John Pingayak as Nathan and his grandfather Malik.  This was the first movie for both of them and they are excellent.  Pingayak actually is a teacher of tribal customs and an expert on tribal dance.  His performance is reminiscent of Chief Dan George in Little Big Man.

The plight of the whales brings together a diverse group of people (and an excellent cast of actors).  Besides those previously named, there’s Ted Danson as the president of an oil company, Tim Blake Nelson as a helper for Rachel and Adam, Kristen Bell as an L.A. reporter who finds she’s covering the story of her life, Vinessa Shaw as an assistant in the White House who steps in to help, Dermot Mulroney as an Alaskan Air National Guard helicopter pilot, and Rob Riggle and James LeGros as a pair of inventors from Minnesota who provide a key element in the saving of the whales.

There are maybe three swear words in the entire film.  There is, though, one “Bambi’s Mother” moment that parents should be aware of, though if a child has ever watched any true-life nature movies (or has ever watched Bambi) they’d be able to handle it.  What you do have is a movie that affirms both the majesty of nature and the triumph of the human spirit.  We need both of those messages these days.

Do stay for at least the beginning of the credits since they include archival footage of the real people who were involved in the story.

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