After sitting at home, wiping the tears off of my cheeks as a boy goes over and beyond to liberate a killer whale from its tank, and then sitting in a movie theater crying my eyes out over the giant rescue mission to save three whales from suffocating in the ice, I had to wonder why humans care so much about their seafaring brothers-in-mammaldom. Why was it so believable that these characters would go to such great lengths to protect some whales? And why did I use a whole box of tissues over it? Drew Barrymore’s character explains it this way in Big Miracle: “Even though they’re big and powerful, they’re so much like us. We’re vulnerable, and we get scared, and we need help sometimes too.”
In 1993, Free Willy made a splash with its heartwarming, family-oriented storyline and the special relationship it portrayed between a young boy and his new, 12,000-pound friend. Now it’s up against Big Miracle, based on a true story about how it took a nation to save three whales. Which film has what it takes to be rescued by this Smackdown, and which will be deep-sixed? Cue the music; it’s time to spout off.
Big Miracle is based on a book by journalist Tom Rose about a big problem for three whales that escalates into an even bigger story—one in which everyone involved shares a little bit of the spotlight, the fame and the joy over a remarkable outcome. Reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) just happens to be at the right place at the right time when he records three gray whales trapped near Point Barrow, Alaska, while the water quickly turns into ice around them. When ex-girlfriend and Greenpeace volunteer Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore) catches wind of this, she makes it her mission to save the whales by involving everyone she possibly can. That group eventually includes oil businessman J.W. McGraw (Ted Danson), Los Angeles news reporter Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell), a team of local Eskimos, the crew of a Russian ship, and the National Guard led by Colonel Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney).
Whales Fred, Wilma and Bam-bam, (known in reality as Crossbeak, Bonnet and Bone) eventually broke through the ice that had them trapped at sea. When this real-life drama occurred in 1988, they also broke an invisible barrier between the United States and the Russians that existed as a result of the Cold War.
Troubled orphan Jesse (Jason James Richter) gets caught vandalizing the marina in the local adventure park. To keep him out of juvie and more trouble, Jesse’s parole officer Dwight Mercer (Mykelti Williamson) orders him to clean up his mess at the marina, where Jesse meets Willy, a killer whale separated from its family.
Marine trainer Rae Lindley (Lori Petty) explains to Jesse that Willy is dangerous and suffers from a mood disorder, but that does not keep Jesse from hanging around Willy’s tank. The boy and whale bond instantly, and Willy begins to move around his tank with more spirit than Rea has ever seen. Jesse learns that if Willy does not start performing for audiences, Dial (Michael Ironside), the owners of the marina, will kill the whale. Jesse, Rea, and Randolph (August Schellenberg) try everything to prepare Willy for his performance debut, but when Willy catches stage fright, it is up to Jesse, his family and new friends to, well… free Willy.
The stories are what get the emotions going and the tears flowing in these stories. I’d say the performances in both are a hair above mediocre, but the actors get the job done. After the film starts, you don’t even care whether the leads are Drew Barrymore, who’s made more movies than I can count, or Jason James Richter, who started his movie career with Free Willy and hasn’t done much since. It’s the storytellers (Keith Walker for Free Willy, and Jack Arniel and Michael Begler for Big Miracle), upon whose shoulders these films sink or swim.
On the surface, Free Willy is a kid’s movie. The heroes and villains are obvious (the cute little boy is the good guy, and the businessman with the mean face is evil). The problem is clear: Willy is in trouble if he can’t perform. And the solution is in the title. Besides the very popular Michael Jackson song that plays while the end credits roll, what made this movie a hit? The answer is in the relationships. At the start of the film, Willy gets caught in a net and moans for his family on the other side. The only connection Willy makes is with a child, Jesse, whose mother abandoned him as well. Willy and Jesse both suffer from loneliness, and they help each other find families. Powerful stuff.
Big Miracle is a bit more complex. The personal relationships tend to feel forced in this film, so it’s the overall goal of helping the whales that has to drive the story and deliver its impact. The fact that Rachel is the ex-girlfriend of the reporter who discovers the whales is an acceptable coincidence, but their connection to the whales doesn’t seem to be a very good reason to fall in love with each other. Rachel is obsessed with animal rights and works fiercely to get her way, while Adam is an easygoing news reporter who tries to move up in the ranks, which is difficult because work’s just not that important to him. He doesn’t have a reporter’s will to get the story no matter what, like Jill Jerard does. There is a hint of potential romance between Adam and Jill, but that doesn’t go anywhere because she cares too much about her job. Thankfully this drama doesn’t take up too much of the film because, again, it’s the goal that pushes the story forward.
You get a feeling of faith in mankind after seeing Big Miracle because, even though some characters have better reasons than others for saving the whales, they’re able to put aside differences and achieve something together. At a certain point, the oil businessman and the animal rights activist shake hands, proving that a job description doesn’t define a person. The villain in this film is Mother Nature, and she shows just how bitterly cold she can be.
Free Willy, on the other hand, paints a very dismal picture of society and how destructive man can be to animals. When we first meet Jesse, he’s asking strangers for money because he’s starving and hasn’t eaten. That’s brutal. And Dial, the businessman, only cares about making money off Willy. When Dial’s lackey discovers Willy’s tank is in trouble after the nasty kids at the marina kept irritating Willy, Wade scoffs and munches his popcorn. Now that’s a true villain, even if somewhat thinly drawn.
If Big Miracle weren’t based on a true story, I wouldn’t believe it. How often are we reminded that people can do good things regardless of what they get out of it? Not often enough, if you ask me. So the film deserves praise, but sadly not this Smackdown title. With all of it’s big stars and advanced cinematography, it still doesn’t match against the relationship between an abandoned boy and homesick whale. You don’t need a big budget to make a good movie as long as the story holds up, and our winner, Free Willy, proves this is possible.