A few years back, Roy Disney (Walt’s nephew) led a group of dissenting shareholders group against the Disney board and then CEO Michael Eisner. Eventually, Roy was appointed Director Emeritus of the company and everyone made nice-nice. A cynical person might think that one of the thing’s that led to Roy rejoining the Disney fold was that the Mouse House would have to distribute his underwhelming sailing documentary, Morning Light.
Roy Disney is a big time sailing guy. He regularly sails in something called the Transpac, which is a sailing race from Long Beach to Hawaii. Prior to the 2007 race he got the idea with his much younger wife, Leslie DeMeuse, a former ESPN producer, to staff a boat with young sailors who had never met each other before and, well, see how they did. Of course, you don’t do a stunt like that just for altruistic motives, you have to film the training and race and hopefully come out with an interesting sailing documentary. While Morning Light isn’t a complete failure, it’s not particularly interesting and Roy would have been better off trying to create another Fantasia movie.
Roy and Leslie hired director Mark Monroe and editor Paul Crowder to get something out of this grand project. While they did get some beautiful scenery and sailing footage during the 2,500 mile race, one of the key elements of a good documentary, interest in your subjects, is sorely lacking. The plan was to take 15 young sailors (all between the ages of 18 and 23) and put them through about six months of training in Hawaii, then whittle them down to the 11 who would actually race the boat across the vast stormy seas.
The first 45 or so minutes cover the introduction of the sailors and their coaches/advisors. While the format of starting with a bigger group than needed and ending up with the “winners’ is familiar to anyone who has ever watched a reality show, Morning Light doesn’t try to make any of the 15 particularly memorable. Other than Steve Manson, an inner-city kid who’d only been sailing for about four years, there is almost no time spent on any of the potential crew members. You really only remember Manson, the girls (since there are only two), and the guy with the Australian accent. Everyone else is interchangeable. At the end when you get the obligatory “where are they know” information, you find that you don’t really care. “Oh, he graduated from the University of South Vermont State Polytechnic, wow.”
In addition to the failure to differentiate the crew members, the only on-camera interviews during the training are with people like Disney or one of the team’s coaches. The crew members are typically heard reading passages from their journals over footage, but it comes out sounding staged and fake. It doesn’t draw you to the people; it makes you think they are being given things to read by others. Why not let them talk for themselves?
The second half of the movie is devoted to the race itself. It’s hard to generate excitement when you don’t even see your competition for 98% of the 12 day race. Monroe and Crowder can’t seem to figure out how to build suspense for the event. Another, more experienced, boat is set up as a half-hearted “villain” but mostly you see pretty scenes of blue water sailing and crew members (who you can’t remember) saying things like “this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Sailors might enjoy the full focus view of their sport, but the movie does little to generate a novice’s interest. Perhaps a season long reality show would have been the way to go. Maybe Roy couldn’t negotiate that in the big Disney reconcilement.
Morning Light includes approximately 70 minutes worth of bonus documentaries in addition to the 98 minute main feature. That’s a pretty good amount of information about the crew and project that Roy Disney and Leslie DeMeuse put in motion.
The first extra is called “Stories from the Sea with Host Jason Earles.” The host is one of the supporting players on “Hannah Montana” and how he, out of all the kid actors in Disney’s stable, got tapped to do this is anyone’s guess. The title is a little misleading in that it’s not “stories from the sea” in general that Jason presents, but some background information about the Morning Light boat and then a softball interview with Disney and DeMeuse.
The documentary itself doesn’t do a great job of explaining things about sailing to non-sailors, so “Stories from the Sea” tries to provide a little bit of info. It shows the crew going through some CPR and mechanical training and learning how to use sextants and other manual navigation tools. There is also a brief segment on the boat’s 12th crew member, cameraman Richard Deppe. The last 10 minutes of the extra are an interview with the aforementioned producers where they get to put their spin on sailing, teamwork, environmentalism, and anything else their heart desires. Although Earles asks the questions, you almost wonder if Roy and Leslie are handing them to him on index cards 5 seconds before the camera turns on.
The second extra is the 45 minute ESPN special called “Morning Light: Making the Cut.” Disney and DeMeuse had originally invited 30 candidates to try out from the hundreds that submitted applications. That number was cut down to 15 before filming for the documentary started. This feature shows how the 30 was narrowed down to the final group.
This feature is actually almost a better and more interesting documentary than the actual movie. There is some of the tension and actual understanding of the people involved than you got in the final film. Still, since you will probably watch this after watching the movie, it loses some of its original tension. You know who gets in and who doesn’t.
The redeeming feature of the entire DVD is that their really is some beautiful sailing footage and they are showed off to good effect, even on a non-HD medium. Still, there is a reason this movie made less than $300,000 when it was released in theaters last Fall. It’s not a great documentary and it’s probably not worth picking up unless you are related to someone in the cast.