Partly true save-the-whales tale

Drew Barrymore plays a Greenpeace activist anxious about the whales' plight.

Freeing Willy was a cakewalk compared to what would-be rescuers face in Alaska.

Three California gray whales, christened Fred, Wilma, and Bamm-Bamm, are trapped off the coast of Barrow, Alaska, north of the Arctic Circle. They're essentially stranded in a pocket of water that hasn't crusted over with ice and serves as their breathing hole; miles of ice block their path to freedom and migration.

If something isn't done, the two adults and young male will die, a plight that captivates the world in fall 1988 when Big Miracle is set. It was inspired by the real story that competed with the presidential race for airtime on the nightly news.

In the PG-rated blend of fact and fiction, it's small-town TV reporter Adam Carlson (John Krasinski of TV's The Office) who spots the whales quite by accident.

When the story goes national and then international, the media circus comes to town, Greenpeace activist and Adam's ex, Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore), shows up, and everyone from President Reagan to a no-nonsense National Guardsman (Dermot Mulroney) and an oil tycoon (Ted Danson) gets involved.

Even if you don't remember much about the story reported by the likes of network anchormen Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Peter Jennings, it was front-page news.

Big Miracle shows that image-conscious businessmen can turn into do-gooders, Eskimos accustomed to hunting whales can find ways to keep them alive, and entrepreneurship can thrive anywhere, even at the top of the world.

Kristen Bell portrays a go-getter reporter from Los Angeles who jumps at the chance to go to Alaska when her veteran, preening colleagues turn up their noses at the prospect. She presents a sharp contrast to Barrymore's Rachel, who doesn't care about makeup probably tested on animals or shaggy hair with blond roots long grown out and in need of a good cut.

A couple of fresh faces come courtesy of John Pingayak as a whaling captain and Ahmaogak Sweeney as his grandson, an Eskimo who prefers Guns N' Roses to the wails of whales.

The movie is based on Thomas Rose's book Freeing the Whales: How the Media Created the World's Greatest Non-Event, apparently nowhere near as cynical as the title suggests.

Ken Kwapis (He's Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, and License to Wed) directs the screenplay by Jack Amiel and Michael Begler. They turn a couple of real-life participants into composites and invent a fictional Alaska governor played by Stephen Root.

 One glaring distraction is that, despite bone-chilling temperatures, you rarely see anyone's frosty breath. A little extra blush on the cheeks doesn't cut it, and the omission is underscored by a closing-credit photo of a real participant whose beard was crusty with ice.

Anyone who lived through the late 1980s will get a kick out of some of those unfortunate fashions (watch for a youthful Sarah Palin as a big-haired TV sportscaster at the very end) and a chance to revisit a small chapter of history.

Nitpicking aside, Big Miracle proves surprisingly heartwarming. The whales are either mechanical or computer-generated but look lifelike enough, especially when seen swimming underneath the surface.

The film's lessons about what can happen when friends, foes and the odd Minnesota inventors of a de-icing machine work toward a common goal are perfect for young moviegoers. Big Miracle, slapped with a blandly generic title, is far from a miraculous movie but proves more educational and entertaining than you might imagine.

And as Krasinski's character suggests, "Everybody loves whales."

Big Miracle

Directed by Ken Kwapis. With Kristen Bell, Stefan Kapicic, Tim Blake Nelson, John Krasinski, Mark Ivanir, Drew Barrymore. Distributed by Universal Pictures.

Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.

Parent's guide: PG (for language).