You have to admire the ideological purity of a movie about whales that has no allegiances to any other character except those whales. In this retelling of a real-life 1988 incident where three whales were trapped under fast-moving ice off the coast of Alaska, not one human being on screen is afforded the privilege of absolute heroism. Every single person you meet may be a "type" but they're also riddled with mixed motives and not one of them is painted all-black or all-white. From Greenpeace activists (Drew Barrymore) to careerist TV journalists (Kristen Bell, John Krasinski), from big, bad, oil company executives (Ted Danson) to opportunistic out-of-state inventors, from greedy little kids to Ronald Reagan, the military (both U.S. and U.S.S.R.) and native Inupiat Alaskans, nobody is allowed to be all good or all bad. This is about the whales, man, the whales.
The plot is as simple as a children's film can be. The poor whales are trapped and, without human assistance, they'll die under that ice. What happens next is the kind of we're-all-in-this-together narrative that, if it weren't ripped from decades-old headlines of newspapers that no longer exist, would feel as fictional as Lassie saving the life of some kid trapped in a cave.
But it's not fiction. Even the "based on a true story" line that begins the film is held to a weirdly faithful standard of truth. From the negotiations between Greenpeace and Alaskan citizens, the oil companies and the military, to the seemingly inconsequential interpersonal dramas, lot of ground is covered (and by a Valentine's Day number of character actors -- you'll spend the whole movie thinking, "Oh hey, it's that guy."). So much ground, in fact, that just when you think the movie is artificially throwing two people together for the sake of a studio's misguided attempt to force a love-interest angle into the action, here comes the closing credits to inform you that, yes, those two unlikely people actually got married after the whales were rescued and here's the real-life home video to prove it. The only characters who seem clearly conjured up out of thin air are the "typically '80s" family of four the camera keeps cutting back to, sitting around their wood-paneled Quasar television, glued to the rescue action, silently eating off of TV trays and rooting for the whales.
And yes, there's irritating anthropomorphism going on. The whales get names to ramp up the emotional punch. People seem to need that sort of thing. In any case, despite all that, the film has enough teachable moments for your kids to keep you in dinner table conversation for a week. Your young ones will learn that, yes, animals sometimes die, that happy endings can be marred by sadness, that people can be both reasonable and unreasonable at the same time, that corporations are frequently both evil and humane, that presidents are often out of touch, that politicians are in bed with oil companies, that the media is a cynical business, that journalists will trample each other to get a story of dubious importance, that just because your earth-centric religion tells you to eat an endangered species doesn't mean you always should and that TVs, once upon a time, had awesome names like Quasar and were designed to match your living room's paneling.