Easygoing 'Big Miracle' a family-friendly experience

It takes a village to save a whale.

Make that three whales -- and a media village.

But never fear. If you weren't around in 1988 -- or only dimly recall the real-life incident it purports to depict -- along comes "Big Miracle" to warm your heart, despite the movie's north-of-the-Arctic-Circle setting.

One of those "Paradoxes 'R' Us" movies that promises an "incredible true story" as it unfolds, "Big Miracle" serves up a veritable Vegas buffet of cinematic staples, from squabbling exes keeping their mutual torches aflame to political opponents who set aside personal antipathies to work toward a common cause.

And just to put things in perspective, "Big Miracle's" political opponents include then-President Ronald Reagan and Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev .

So cue "We Are the World" and get set for a little "Kumbayah"-style togetherness as "Big Miracle" sets a cinematic course for kinder, gentler waters.

Our destination: Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the U.S., where nice-guy TV reporter Adam Carlson ("The Office's" endearing John Krasinski) longs to escape frozen tundra-land for greener professional pastures.

Not that he doesn't love Alaska -- or its people. He's just tired of roving the Last Frontier, unearthing such newscast-afterthought features as a story on "the northernmost avocado in Alaska" -- a staple at Barrow's one-and-only Mexican restaurant.

But Adam's not the only one anxious to leave the Arctic behind; his young pal Nathan (Ahmaogak Sweeney) would rather hang out at the town's makeshift TV studio, dreaming of what's beyond all that ice, than absorb the traditional wisdom of his Inupiat grandfather (John Pingayak ).

As they soon discover, however, they don't need to leave Barrow to reach the wider world -- not after Adam spots a family of three California gray whales, trapped in the Arctic ice, and reports on their plight.

If the whales can't free themselves -- or if someone can't help them get free -- they'll perish.

And as soon as Adam uploads video of the whale parents and their sickly baby, struggling to breathe through a single hole in the ice, the world becomes wrapped up in the fates of the whales they dub Fred, Wilma and Bamm-Bamm . (Yes, we know Fred and Wilma Flintstone's daughter was Pebbles, but the whale baby's a boy -- which explains the Bamm-Bamm thing.)

It may be a pre-digital era without cellular phones or personal computers, but Adam's TV footage still manages to reach network officials -- and network newscasts presided over by the venerable triumvirate of Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather. (Watching these past news titans reporting the story gives "Big Miracle" a major blast of nostalgia for TV-news junkies, who will recognize other long-gone fixtures, including Garrick Utley and Connie Chung.)

The whales' predicament also draws the attention of Greenpeace activist Rachel Kramer (Drew Barrymore at her most earnestly winsome). Naturally, she and Adam have a history together -- and, more recently, apart. That makes it convenient when an ambitious Los Angeles-based TV reporter (Kristen Bell) shows up, enabling Adam to pursue his long-distance crush. Good thing Rachel's so ardent an activist she can overlook petty personal jealousies and concentrate on saving those whales.

Also in on the action: a greedy oil tycoon (breezily crass Ted Danson) eager to drill, baby, drill anywhere and everywhere within the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; a macho Air National Guard major (Dermot Mulroney); an Alaska wildlife expert (Tim Blake Nelson) who appears on cue to explain what's happening with the whales; a White House staffer (Vinessa Shaw) anxious to use the incident to burnish the Reagan administration's tarnished environmental record; and two goofy Minnesota tinkerers (Rob Riggle , James LeGros ), aiming to garner valuable publicity for their homemade ice-melting contraption during the big save-the-whales emergency.

To say nothing of Gorbachev, who dispatches a Soviet icebreaker at Reagan's request to, literally, break the Cold War ice and aid in the rescue effort.

In adapting Thomas Rose's book "Freeing the Whales," screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler ("Raising Helen," "The Prince & Me") take all sorts of sitcom-style liberties with the historical record. (For example, a Native Alaskan hunter found the trapped whales in real life.) But, hokey as they are, some of the lighter invented moments humanize the almost inescapable cynicism of the whale tale's media-circus elements.

Similarly, director Ken Kwapis -- another sitcom veteran whose credits range from Barrymore's "He's Just Not That Into You" to Krasinski's "The Office" -- manages to maintain the movie's easygoing humor even while building the tension. (Considering that at least some of us already know how the story turned out, that's not as easy as it sounds.)

And while "Big Miracle" hardly resembles a blockbuster special-effects showcase, the movie's utterly convincing whale puppets demonstrate how well animatronics, hydraulics and robotics can indeed bring inanimate objects to life. Leading the effects team: whale construction designer Justin Buckingham, who also worked on 2002's wonderful "Whale Rider."

Not surprisingly, "Big Miracle" is hardly in "Whale Rider's" league; it's too easygoing, too willing to settle for easy laughs, and too reluctant to explore deeper conflicts to achieve anything remotely resembling "Whale Rider's" transcendence.

In short, "Big Miracle" is never any kind of miracle. But for family audiences in desperate need of wholesome, positive movie experiences, it's a voyage worth taking.

Contact movie critic Carol Cling at ccling@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0272.