Blu-ray Review: Morning Light (2008)

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As Walt's nephew Roy E. Disney notes in both the introduction and conclusion of the latest House of Mouse true sports adventure turned film--while the crew of the titular Morning Light embark on what could be a life-or-death race at sea--the ever-smiling optimist Roy informs the youths participating that they should realize in the end the race is far less important than the journey.

And it turns out that this is just one of the many truisms about "hanging in there" and "fighting the good fight" and David vs. Goliath and overcoming one's fear that has been used both as slogans as well as for the themes and moral lessons of countless Walt Disney sports films that sure enough run throughout the narration, video diaries, confessionals, e-mails, interviews, and subtext of the studio's documentation of their massive 2007 undertaking.

Yet in the end, Morning Light the movie (not the sailing vessel) just felt empty instead of truly inspiring-- just like a mass-produced "just do it" or "no fear" t-shirt or one that says "it's in the journey" but doesn't take the time to actually engage us in a journey.

While as a theme it's incredibly fitting for the studio who makes these films better than anyone. And indeed the fact that the concept and execution of the Roy E. Disney produced Morning Light from writer/director Mark Monroe was actually manufactured by the House of Mouse and fashioned like a teen friendly documentary seemed like a natural progression from fictitious true life works like Remember the Titans, Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, Invincible and Glory Road into the realm of reality television, YouTube confessionals, etc.

However, what sounds like the perfect marriage on paper turns out to be just as original as Roy E. Disney's incredibly well-intentioned but cliched sports pep talks. For watching the cinematically breathtaking but anticlimactic documentary right after the Blu-ray releases of Walt Disney's The Greatest Game Ever Played and Miracle instantly made me realize how much I missed the classic Disney arc of underdogs defying the overwhelming odds when all of the elements work in harmony to draw us in and make us feel like we're right there with them.

Throughout Morning Light-- everything feels extremely hands off or like we're distinctly kept at an arm's length away from the action of this adventurous feature film treatment of what would've made a superlative special on the Disney Channel (provided of course that the ESPN special that chronicled the same event had been worked into it).

Part of the trouble seems to be in its massive scope of far too many participants who all look very similar as we meet fifteen young yacht sailing hopefuls all vying for one of eleven spots to join the crew of Disney's Morning Light in "the oldest and most prestigious open sea race in the world."

Having begun in 1906-- over one hundred years after the Transpacific Yacht Race from Los Angeles to Honolulu, champion yacht sailor Roy E. Disney and his fellow crew member and co-executive producer Leslie DeMeuse are there for "the journey" in 2007 as we follow the six months of intensive, physically exhausting and emotionally draining training of the chosen fifteen kids.

Primarily the group is comprised of-- as I mentioned before-- an over-abundance of blonde young men who seem pretty interchangeable aside from the fact that luckily one has an Australian accent and sets himself apart to be the natural leader. Likewise, also setting themselves apart purely by gender-- we meet the strong female Genny who battles a wrecked arm from a snowboarding incident to become the only woman to take part in the race.

Yet essentially the youths are Disney ready (wholesome), camera friendly (attractive), diverse (one African-American and two women) eighteen to early twenty something athletes who will actually decide amongst themselves not only who will be the skipper of the fifty-two foot racing sloop but also the other ten to accompany the leader and the four who will serve as alternates for the roughly twenty-five hundred mile oceanic version of the Indianapolis 500. With so many participants-- aside from a few standouts, a majority of the crew members blend together which makes perfect sense for their role as a team that's more important as a group than for any one member but unbearable to the viewer as we have a hard time identifying with most of the aspiring sailors.

Moreover, sometimes it was hard not to find certain cinematic choices a tad on the manipulative or questionable side such as the decision to bring a young African-American man with very little sailing experience and one who isn't a strong swimmer on the team and-- as opposed to the few sentence summaries of some of the other wealthy Ivy Leaguers-- go further into his back-story of losing his mother recently in the same way that Disney's ABC channel program Extreme Makeover Home Edition sometimes steps over the bounds of good intentions into dangers of exploitation.

For, sure enough when they practice the "man overboard" drill they make the choice to throw him in the water and there are a few scenes like this throughout when a quiet kid is initially overlooked for inclusion on the team mainly because he's so quiet they haven't (as well as the viewer) realized how naturally gifted he is at sailing. Of course, since soon the adults express shock regarding the decision that he's been moved to the position of an alternate, shortly thereafter and trying to add to dramatic effect, a replacement is made and he's back on the crew.

Overall, while I really admired the way that Disney and those involved in the project left the big decisions in the hands of the young sailors and tested their mettle frequently to help ensure they knew exactly what they were getting themselves into-- so much feels as though it was left on the cutting room floor in terms of how the fifteen were actually selected. And given the main fixation on simply the preparation and the sailing to the exclusion of getting to know them as people--possibly because it is Disney so when mild curses are bleeped out and references that they "partied" together are mentioned-- we have no idea what that exactly means.

Therefore, although it purports to be about "the journey" and we're repeatedly told it's quite a journey and a life changing experience, we never get to see an emotional, psychological, or engaging journey that makes their based on true stories narrative feature films so darn irresistible and much more effective.

Further showing the wasted potential of what works at its heart best perhaps as a home movie for the fifteen kids involved as well as their family and friends rather than strangers is the superior bonus features like the ESPN special on "making the cut" and "stories from the sea" which went much more in-depth in terms of the details of building this particular team.

Although Disney frequently turns out top-notch Blu-rays-- aside from the contents of the film as being less than thoroughly engaging-- Morning Light is a particularly stellar achievement as the ocean stuns more brilliantly in 1080 high definition as the clever editing by Dogtown and Z-Boys' cutter Paul Crowder mixed together with one amazingly good soundtrack (that I was hoping would've been discussed as an extra) provide a great home entertainment experience purely from an audio/video standpoint.

While again, I love the idea of the film more than the movie itself-- unfortunately, I can only recommend a rental and share that for Disney at their best, you should move away from their own manufactured documentaries and back to those stunning works of post-modern sports art where it is truly about the journey.