Amazing feats of human athleticism, no matter the category, always seem to inspire. Whether it’s a time-tested pro making one last attempt at twilight career redemption, or a spunky band of newcomers lighting up the sport with their brash untainted verve, we just can’t seem to get enough. Every time we think Hollywood has tapped out the genre, giving us the random clichéd tales of underprivileged swimmers, culturally ill-equipped bobsledders, or any number of misfit teams, they find a new source of sentimentality, and we sit back and swallow every “will they or won’t they” drop. As a self-proclaimed entry in the long running “True-Life Documentary” series, Roy Disney has decided to live out his aging sailor’s dreams by finding a crew of privileged college kids to man his high tech boat, the Morning Light, in the annual Transpac yacht race. Sadly, what should have been compelling competitive theater comes up a little short.
After a sneak peek at an audition process that seems more like American Idol (or better yet, MTV’s Real World) than the tryouts for a 10 to 12 day endurance test, a ragtag group of clean cut kids travel to Hawaii to prepare for the big day. In a move that is, again, taken straight out of a reality series script, the 15 advancing candidates will have to choose the 11 who will actually make the cut. That’s right, over the course of 30 minutes we get superficial sketches of everyone involved (the Harvard queen with boating in her blood, the arrogant Aussie who’s a master at manning the helm) and then wait for the moment when four of them get the boot. There are a couple of surprises along the way, including one stand-out participant who’s either a very lucky kid or a token representation of diversity. When the crew is finally selected, its overall make-up sure does resemble the House of Mouse…circa 1964.
With its technical jargon, indecipherable maneuvers, and overall level of procedural mystery, boating is a tough cinematic sell. We never really understand how this well trained crew actually works together, constantly question the calls for “trim” and “jibe”, and see a plaintive pattern of steering and struggling. None of this makes for compelling fiction or understandable intrigue. Morning Light hopes to combat this lack of procedural acumen by offering up the thoughts of our well-groomed crew. Sadly, they are as dense as the directives needed to get from California to Hawaii. It’s not that they are unlikeable or aggravating, but these are young people ill-prepared to have their every action captured on camera. When push comes to shove, they put on their well-to-do Ivy League airs and respond politely to the lens.
Besides, it’s not like Morning Light loaded the cast with unique and/or dashing personalities. Genny Tulloch, the only girl chosen for the journey, breaks her arm during a freak snowboarding accident. Of course, she turns the stupid move on her part into a minor pity party, especially when she doesn’t earn the longed-for Captain’s chair. Mark Towill turns his Downunder accent into a bit of personal subterfuge, inspiring confidence while occasionally slipping into dictator mode. One particular sailor is dubbed “the silent, dependable type” and he upholds that derivative description rather well. In fact, the rest of the party is so generic that the film has to constantly put their names onscreen to remind the audience as to who they actually are.
Indeed, the most compelling person here is young African American candidate Steve Manson. Uncomfortable in the water and carrying the burden of his mother’s recent death on his scrawny city boy shoulders, this Baltimore son seems destined to be the film’s mandatory feel good story. This is especially true when he fails one of the first tests and is still brought on to the Hawaii part of the program. But like most of this underwhelming movie, what could have been a knockout story of courage under fire and rising to the occasion turns into a tepid slice of upper crust calculation. Even the music tries to mimic the tried and true Disney formula. Instead of compelling classical or ambient soundscapes, the score is littered with the kind of Jonas/Miley wannabes that already give the company a crass corporate rock label.
And the sad thing is, the backdrop is beyond gorgeous. Hawaii is filmed in true travelogue style, and every training exercise becomes a voyage into nature’s spellbinding liquid heart. During the race, we see amazing sunsets and awe-inspiring cloudbursts. The white foam of the every wave glistens in the ever-present rays of a gorgeous sun, and when wildlife comes along to accompany the crew, we see every dolphin diving moment. But there are times when Morning Light becomes just another episode of Big Boats on ESPN2. The night vision footage is uninspiring, and we don’t get enough “action” sequences, moments when man and machine merge together to form a perfect union of power and perfection. Instead, we get lots of voiceover sentiments and more shots of people in expensive sunglasses.
It would be nice to report that this labor of love for Roy and his yachting compatriots reminds one of the glory days of Disney, a time when such seminal (if often staged) True-Life adventures like The Painted Desert and The Vanishing Prairie earned critical raves and Oscar gold. It would be equally polite to say what a compelling and ultimately uplifting experience it all is. Indeed, buried somewhere between all the good will and best intentions lies this land lubber of a production. It takes a lot to make a two week, 2200 mile-plus journey across the open sea seem like a boring trip to Cancun during Spring Break, but somehow, Morning Light manages said entertainment strategy quite well. In fact, this may be one of those achievements in human endurance that doesn’t elicit cheers, but sneers. It’s just too picture perfected to be powerful.