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Will Drew Barrymore’s “save the whales” tale connect with audiences? Or will it cause parents — searching for two hours that will silence their calves — to wail.

The “incredible true story that touched the world,” upon which Big Miracle is based, took place in 1988. Were it not for “tree-hugging” Rachel Kramer (Barrymore), and newsman Tom Brokaw’s fondness for covering cetacean mammals, the plight to save a family of whales trapped by rapidly forming ice in the Arctic Circle would certainly have gone unnoticed.

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Drew Barrymore and John Krasinski.

Not that kids will notice, but aside from Drew Barrymore’s Greenpeace activist, there’s not an unselfish, trustworthy character to be found residing at the northern tip of Alaska. Everyone seizes the opportunity to advance their own cause. The lives of three penned cetacea hang in the balance, and the good citizens of Kotzebue view it as a promotional stunt! Fictional Alaska governor Haskell (Stephen Root) privately expresses hatred toward Rachel and damn near upchucks when forced to put a positive spin on things by posing with teenagers dressed in plush whale costumes.

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Red-baiter meets oil tycoon: Dermot Mulroney and Ted Danson

So as not to look like the overly greedy in the glare of media cameras, opportunistic (and fictional) oil tycoon J. W. McGraw (Ted Danson) agrees to make nice with the hippie chick. He was still doing damage control on the Exxon Valdez oil spill, still fresh in America’s mind. (Oddly enough, in the end, fat-cat McGraw comes off looking better and more sympathetic than any of them.) Colonel Scott Boyer (Dermot Mulroney), a jarhead assigned the task of pulling the barge that will hopefully act as an ice-breaker, wants no part of the commie punks that avail their services.

Rachel’s ex-boyfriend Adam Carlson (John Krasinski) is a small-town television reporter with big city ambitions. At one point, Adam goes behind Rachel’s back to conspire with fellow broadcaster (and and her romantic rival), Jill Jerard (Kristen Bell). Together they “borrow” a generator from the competition in hopes that their story will be the first to make it to the network.

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Insufferably precocious newcomer Ahmaogak Sweeney and John Pingayak

Here's a shock: the most unlikeable character in the bunch is the one kids are supposed to identify with. Newcomer Ahmaogak Sweeney plays Bobby Blake to Krasinski’s Humphrey Bogart, an annoying little Eskimo urchin eager to capitalize on deep adult pockets temporarily distracted by the pending tragedy. The conniving little huckster prices cardboard at up to $40 a box for unwitting white folk from out of town to stand on so their feet don’t freeze. The kid is as omnipresent as Jiminy Cricket; he even puts in an appearance at an impromptu city council meeting, lending advice and moral support as big business goes head-to-head with radical activism.

That’s as far as it goes when it comes to displaying any bite in what amounts to a retelling of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole pitched as family fare. It’s a big carnival of a kidpic, and the screenwriters Jack Amiel and Michael Begler wisely (unknowingly?) never allow personality and emotion get in the way of the overriding plea for the safety of orcas everywhere. Sharp kids will pick up on the film’s true message: charity is the accidental byproduct of greed.

The cast of familiar faces keeps it moving along and director Ken Kwapis, cinematographer John Bailey, and the effects crew always provide something worth looking at. The California gray whale puppets are far more gratifying than any CG counterparts. You and the family could do a lot worse.

Click for theaters and showtimes.

Reader Rating: Two stars

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Comments

denfrank Feb. 4, 2012 @ 8:39 a.m.

What a pleasant surprise. This had the feel of some of those 60's comedies like "The Russians are Coming" etc. with broad characters and a good pace. Great movie for parents and kids, everyone I was with ages 9 on up loved it. I know its got some tough competition this weekend, but I hope it catches on.

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Scott Marks Feb. 4, 2012 @ 9:50 a.m.

Dennis, it's not THAT good. It's better than the competition, which ain't saying much.

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denfrank Feb. 4, 2012 @ 12:44 p.m.

Alls I know is for formula kid fare, I wasn't able to sneak my nap in 'cause of the giggles. It looked like all the actors were having a good time.

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Gail Powell Feb. 4, 2012 @ 1:25 p.m.

The frozen tundra of Alaska and the sub-zero freezing temps up in the Great White North should not put any San Diego tourists off from going to Alaska. For God's sake, this is God's country! I am old enough to remember snippets of this whale tale when it was in the news. I was just as easily gathered around the boob tube with my hubby and kids watching the story feverishly unfold. I thought it was a nice, family-friendly movie and did not mind some of the more treacly aspects of "Big Miracle." What I did think was brave, is that Drew Barrymore's Greenpeace activist character went the entire film with nary a hint of makeup or war paint! Now that's brave!

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Scott Marks Feb. 4, 2012 @ 2:30 p.m.

That makes it unanimous, Foo. For a family film released in 2012, we all agree there are worse ways to spend your money. And your delightfully catty comment concerning Drew going au natural is as funny as it is true.

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