Reality shows are casting a big shadow over the entertainment industry. That's no more apparent than in the latest "documentary" from Disney--Roy E. Disney, Walt's nephew. "Morning Light" feels more like a TV reality show than a full-length feature with the kind of voiceover narrator we've grown accustomed to in Disney documentaries. That's the first thing that struck me about this film. The second thing was the subject matter itself. Yes, Disney has been putting out sports movies ("Invincible"/football, "The Rookie"/baseball, "Miracle"/hockey, "The Greatest Game Ever Played"/golf), but sailing?
I didn't know this, but it turns out that Roy is a multiple winner and big player in the Transpacific Yacht Race--Transpac, for short. Competitors sail from Point Fermin at Los Angeles, to Diamond Head, Honolulu--a distance of 2,225 miles. It's the Indy 500 of yachting, a tradition since 1906, one of the most dangerous races in sailing, and Disney has competed in 17 of them. In 1999, he used a specially designed craft and a hand-picked crew of professional sailors to set a new monohull record for the crossing--just seven days, 11 hours, 41 minutes, and 27 seconds. Though that record no longer stands, it's a testament to Disney's passion for the sport, and it helps to explain why he decided to bankroll another boat--the Morning Light, a TP52 Class craft--and sponsor a crew who've never sailed in the race. Disney first completed the Transpac in 1975 at the age of 45, and he says he wanted to give young sailors the kind of opportunity he never had.
So in 2007 the call went out for talented sailors who've never competed in the Transpac. Over 500 applied, from which Disney and a team of judges selected 30 finalists who had to come to Long Beach, California for try-outs. It was a reality competition in itself, and ESPN aired a special, "Morning Light: Making the Cut," which showcased the trials. The first thing wannabes were asked to do? Remove cell phones and wallets and jump into the pool, fully clothed. They were instructed to swim the length of the pool two times and then tread water for five minutes. More challenges followed, and though there were no torches to extinguish, the whole thing had a staged feel, a "we're on camera" self-consciousness that's been reality TV's most unfortunate by-product.
Eventually Disney and his judges chose 15 sailors, calling them in one by one as if they had just designed clothing for a runway model or sung a song, and now they had to hear the judges talk about them before "sentencing," rather than simply reading their name on a list. All of this was filmed with the intent of turning it into a feature-length movie, the idea for which Disney credits TP52 Class Association director Tom Pollock. Asked by an interviewer if he was looking for pairings among the 15 that might "create a little drama during the training or the race," Disney remarked, "No. I don't think we can afford to be cutesy like that. We've got a boat that's got to go 2,500 miles safely and, hopefully, competitively." So at least Disney put sailing and safety ahead of entertainment, and he resisted any urge to create false tension or situations once the race was under way.
Using four fixed cameras and one hand-held camera operated by a man who was twice the crew's ages (18 to 23), Disney hoped to capture a you-are-there feeling, which was augmented by cameras placed on Disney's support boat, the Pyewacket--the same craft he set the record with in 1999. Disney told Sailing World's Stuart Streuli, "I hope it does for sailing what 'March of the Penguins' did for penguins. If that means raising awareness, then "Morning Light" is an unqualified success. But taken as a film, "Morning Light" has nearly as many weaknesses as strengths.
For one thing, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching Geraldo Rivera enter Al Capone's vault again and, live, on national television, discovering . . . nothing. The race seems almost anti-climactic, given the fact that there's not much action. The selection process and trials are more interesting, but ESPN had already done a film about the competition for the 15 spots, so it wasn't an option for first-time director Mark Monroe to shift his focus. But in view of the smooth sailing, all of the repeated emphasis during training about how one slip can cost someone his life and how dangerous this race is felt like false hype. Trailers for the film show a man falling overboard, but it was only one of many exercises that the crew went through to prepare them for the race.
Another problem is focus. Some of the crew we get to know, but the film's focus seems torn in different directions. Is this a film about a crew coming together? Rookies proving themselves? Select individuals? The Transpac? The day-to-day feelings of the participants? "Morning Light" felt as if it zig-zagged a bit rather than steering straight for a through-line that would help audiences find the film's emotional center.
That said, digital cameras capture some awfully appealing shots of the sailboats at sea, though one bright star kind of reeks of a Disney trademark moment--so much so that you wonder if Mickey ears are also hidden somewhere in the picture.
At times, the focus shifts to Steve Manson, one of four chosen who was not tabbed to actually be on the boat for the race. They were to be alternates in case someone got sick, but in the case of Manson, whom Roy Disney obviously took a shine to, he seemed to get special treatment--both in terms of camera time during the film itself, and assignment, which we don't learn until later. That felt like a misstep to me, because we learn on a bonus feature that Manson was honored by being the only rookie chosen to join Roy and his all-pro crew aboard the legendary Pyewacket and sail constantly within sight of the Morning Light. That's a story in itself, and I can't help but think that the film might have been stronger had they focused on Manson from the start and brought in the rest on the periphery.
As is, we really don't learn enough about each "character" to get the feeling that we know them. With a crew of 11 (half of whom seem to be named Chris) and people in constant motion, we get more of a feel for what it's like to run the Transpac. Maybe that was the point, but high drama it's not. And it goes on too long once the race is over, with weepy goodbyes milked for every last emotion. We also get the 411 on what each crew member went on to do afterwards: Genny Tulloch graduated from Harvard in 2005, sailed on the Tahiti Race 2008, and is looking toward the 2012 Olympics; Charlie Enright graduated from Brown in 2008 and is working as a sailmaker in Portsmouth, Rhode Island; Chris Schubert graduated from the Naval Academy in 2007 and is in flight school in Pensacola, Florida; Mark Towill is now a sophomore at Brown, active on the sailing team and in ocean conservation; Chris Clark is majoring in geography and pre-med at the University of Mary Washington; Graham Brant-Zawadzki got his graduate degree from Stanford in 2008 and is working on health policy research in San Francisco; Robbie Kane is a senior studying landscape architecture at the University of Rhode Island; Kate Theisen is studying astrophysics at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology; Chris Branning is a 1st classman in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy; Chris Welch is a senior at Michigan State University; Steve Manson is a sophomore at the State University of New York Maritime College, where he's studying naval architecture; Kit Will graduated from Connecticut College and will take a year off to sail before beginning his career in business; Piet Van Os graduated from Cal Maritime Academy in 2008 and is working as a professional yacht captain; Jesse Fielding is an econ major and captain of the University of Rhode Island sailing team; and Morning Light captain Jeremy Wilmot is a senior at St. Mary's College of Maryland and is now sailing professionally.
For a time, like the Mouseketeers and countless casts of Disney TV shows and movies, they came together to form a group and share an experience that obviously meant a lot to each of them and, perhaps most of all, producer Roy Disney. As presented, though, their story just doesn't have the same impact for audiences. Considering the direction, I can't help but wonder if Disney might not have used one rookie too many for this project.
For the most part, and given the conditions, "Morning Light" looks decent in 1080p Hi-Def. Disney used HD digital cameras for all the filming, with supplementary footage coming from standard cameras, night-vision cameras, and archival film clips. Skin-tones and colors seem true enough, but there's atmospheric grain, background noise, some artifacting, and edges that seem to bleed at times. I don't know if it's the result of the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer or the rudimentary conditions, but it's not the kind of demo disc you'd have hoped for with such gorgeous scenery abounding. "Morning Light" is presented in 1.85:1 widescreen.
The soundtrack is also decent considering the conditions, but the audio isn't any more dynamic during the training sequences. Yes, there's less distortion due to the absence of cresting waves and ever-blowing winds, but the English 5.1 DTS-HD (48kHz/24-bit) audio seems clear and resonant at times, and muffled or scratchy at other times. The rear speakers get involved, as one would hope, but you can't expect to film at sea and have a pristine audio track unless you fake it. And thankfully Disney didn't. Fans won't be bothered by anything I've described. An additional audio option is French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
There are two bonus features, and watching them both makes you realize just how non-dramatic "Morning Light" is. In terms of structure, approach, and overall feel, the two bonus features are awfully similar to the feature film. The difference is that "Morning Light: Making the Cut," a 42-minute special which aired on ESPN, concentrates solely on the trials and selection process. There's more footage here than in the film, so in some respects we get more depth and information than in the feature. Meanwhile, "Stories from the Sea with Host Jason Earles" does something sneaky. The "Hannah Montana" co-star acts as host on the front end of what feels like outtakes from the film--including whole sections on Manson, etc. There may be additional behind-the-scenes interviews added to this roughly half-hour making-of feature, but in terms of visual style, narrative style, pacing, and structure, it's all very similar to the film.
"Morning Light" is an interesting film, but not a compelling one. You walk away from it with some idea of what it's like to sail across the Pacific Ocean, but the film pulls in too many different directions to be a winner.