Whale Watching: Big Miracle Movie Features Endangered Gray Whales

Big Miracle Movie PosterIt’s no secret that one of The Vacation Gals’ travel passions is a dolphin and whale watching cruise. From seeing orcas breech in Alaska, to fin whales and dolphins surfacing along the coast of California, to humpback whales seemingly showing off for whale watch cruises in Hawaii, it’s clear that a whale watching tour enhances a coastal vacation. When a press invitation for a new movie about whales called Big Miracle came along, it was one of the fastest RSVPs I’ve sent in recent years.

Big Miracle tells the true story about California gray whales trapped in ice in Northern Alaska in the 1980’s. A Greenpeace activist and a local on-camera newsman worked together to get the story, and the whales, out. While I only have the vaguest of memories of the actual event, an observer wrote a book, Freeing the Whales, on which this movie is based.

Now, some of story in Big Miracle is fictionalized for dramatic storytelling purposes, but this much is true: Three California gray whales were stuck off the coast of Barrow, Alaska in 1988, prevented by ice from their annual migration south. From one on-camera report, the story rippled wider and wider until national correspondents from news headquarters in NYC were sent to freezing, comparatively barren Barrow to cover the story themselves. There are some amusing scenes about the culture clashes that occurred, in Big Miracle, that help set the light tone of the movie. I enjoyed the humor inherent in those scenes.

Big Miracle, Trapped Whales in Alaska

Even the office of President Ronald Reagan got involved, and when the federal government’s humanitarian effort (or should it be, “marine mammalian effort?) was unsuccessful, a Russian icebreaker was used to free the whales. Back in the 1980’s, during the Cold War, this was no easy feat. Saving the endangered California gray whales became an international affair, which is fitting, since animals don’t exactly recognize national borders.

Big Miracle‘s “bad guy” is an oil tycoon interested in drilling in Bristol Bay. But keep in mind, this is a children’s movie. Even the bad guy isn’t too bad! Ted Danson, who portrays the Texas oil man J.W. McGraw, clashes with Drew Barrymore’s Greenpeace activist, but eventually becomes as committed to saving the whales as she was. During the press junket I attended last week, Ted Danson talked about how his own environmentalism helped him fill out the character, since his ecological-mindedness has led him to meet several men on the other side of the table, so to speak. Knowing and liking them as people, despite having vastly different views regarding the importance of protecting endangered species, led him to create the character as less evil-guy-twirling-his-moustache, and more well-rounded. There’s an amusing scene in which his wife (portrayed by Kathy Baker, an underused actress if there ever was one) subtly convinces him to help save the whales in Alaska, from their home in Texas. It boiled down to good public relations, and as Ted Danson told us, “people had to act within their own self-interests to connect for the right thing.”

Big Miracle Press Junket Ted Danson Dermot Mulrony

Big Miracle isn’t all humor and light, though. There are some serious moments (none too upsetting for children). Drew Barrymore’s Greenpeace activist character, Rachel Kramer, represents the true emotional core of the movie. She’s seen whales in Alaska up close, and understands the true power and beauty of the animals. Her character is one of the few that’s not an amalgam of several real people. Rachel is based on activist Cindy Lowry. Drew Barrymore talked with us about getting to know Cindy very well, and how much respect she has for the environmental activist. “Cindy Lowry is a true activist,” she said, “she’s funny, she’s real and she’s tough.”

Big Miracle Movie Press Junket Drew Barrymore John Krasinski

Kristen Bell portrays a television news reporter in Big Miracle; her character is a comedic one, aspiring to succeed in what was then a man’s world, yet intensely worried about her image. She told us about filming in Anchorage when it was around zero to 15 degrees out (as much as possible, Big Miracle was filmed in Alaska). This was quite a switch from her previous film locations, which include Hawaii and Bali! As a travel writer, I was excited to hear about all the disparate places she’s been, however, Kristen Bell describes herself as more of a homebody at heart.  It seems traveling for work is a different experience than traveling for the sake of discovery, or simply for a fun vacation.

There are some other important characters in Big Miracle — Dermot Mulroney plays Colonel Scott Boyer, the Alaska National Guardsman who coordinated efforts to deliver an icebreaker to Barrow, and Vinessa Shaw plays White House staffer Kelly Meyers: these were two real people (Tom Carroll and Bonnie Mersinger) who met, fell in love and got married as a result of the California gray whale rescue in Alaska. But it’s the casting of Alaskan natives — not professional actors — to portray the Everybody Loves Whales, photo by Darren Michaelsindigenous Inupiats of Barrow, Alaska, that truly adds a sense of reality to this movie about the politics and environmental aspects of saving the whales. The Inupiats, northern Alaska natives, are portrayed truly and without condescension. Several key scenes in the movie are seen through the eyes of an 11-year old Inupiat boy, who feels conflicted between the traditional whaling culture of his family, and the modern world encroaching around him.

Big Miracle is a sweet movie. It can serve as a realistic introduction to the importance of protecting endangered animals, no matter how large, as well as a well-rounded look at the conflicts future environmentalists can expect to encounter. The film hits all the right notes for children — even young kids — whose parents are looking for a wholesome family film. It’s my hope that today, different countries could still come together to help save endangered species, and make the world a better place.

Universal Studios treated me to the screening and subsequent press junket day in Santa Monica. However, the views expressed are (as always!) my own.

20 Responses to “Whale Watching: Big Miracle Movie Features Endangered Gray Whales”

  1. 1
    Desiree Eaglin says:

    It looks like an amazing movie!

  2. 2
    Elsie says:

    This looks like such a sweet movie. I love movies that raise awareness about animals and the environment.

    • 2.1
      eric says:

      elsie, i went to see it last night. i found it to be an emotion stirring film. it had me in tears toward the end. i thought it was an excellent movie.

  3. 3

    This is on my list. Thanks for the comprehensive review.

  4. 4

    Thanks for this post. My kids will definitely want to see this one!

  5. 5

    cant wait to see it!

  6. 6
    kay says:

    I read somewhere that they used robotic whales. I hope that this is true, else I will have to boycott the movie.

  7. 7
    Jennifer says:

    Kay, those whales are indeed animatronic. They were made in New Zealand, and some Kiwis (New Zealanders) moved them around. I doubt Ted Danson would have participated in the making of this movie had they captured wild gray whales for filming it!

  8. 8

    I cannot wait to see this movie. I love whales!

  9. 9

    How is it possible I’ve heard nothing about this movie (yet I’ve seen the previews for DineyNature’s Chimpanzee a gazillion times)? Looks very cool, and uplifting stories about animals get me every single time. And you aren’t kidding about whale-watching in Hawaii– you start to think they might just be showing off…

  10. 10
    Caryn B says:

    I LOVED the film….and it was so amazing to hear from Bonnie….Great to meet you (finally) last week!

  11. 11
    Catalina says:

    Whales are amazing mammals. Now I’m curious about this film and want to watch it — thanks!

  12. 12
    Vanessa says:

    such a great experience you gals had. Wish I could have been a part of it!

  13. 13
    Yolanda says:

    Sounds like a fantastic movie. I will add it to the “must see” list, it just keeps growing longer and longer..lol

  14. 14
    K says:

    Hey – thanks for the review. Detailed, dispassionate, coming from a point of view that I can relate to. Valuable. Now I wanna see it.

  15. 15

    Wow! This sounds like a fantastic movie. Can’t wait to take the grandkids. (as an excuse to see it myself.)

  16. 16
    Angela says:

    I really enjoyed reading your review, and will definitely check out the movie. I haven’t heard of it till now. It sounds really nuanced, which is very cool to have in a film aimed at children, rather than the usual fluff entertainment.

  17. 17
    cailin says:

    Great review and sounds like a great movie, I think kids of all ages will love it :)
    So cool that not only you got to go to a pre-screening but also got to attend the junket!
    Jealous that you got to meet Drew, Ted and John Krasinski!!

  18. 18
    jdxeebelle says:

    It was a great movie. However, I believe there is a mistake in this article. When “Ted Danson” and his “wife” were eating dinner, it said Colorado NOT Texas.

  19. 19
    Salman says:

    Just watched this great movie! Its awesome. Really like the movie…

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