Roy E. Disney has sailed the Transpac 16 times. In “Morning Light,” he passes the baton, documenting a team of young mariners as they attempt to win the open-sea race. It’s easy to see how the harrowing 2,500-mile trek from California to Hawaii might have been a life-changing event for Disney and fellow producer Leslie DeMeuse, although the film feels more like the ultimate scrapbook for the participants than the vicarious thrill the pair no doubt imagined for audiences. Of course, Uncle Walt made his share of square nonfiction programs, too (“Tomorrowland,” “True-Life Adventures”), some of which remain classics today.
The obstacle isn’t so much the subject matter — though the race offers neither the drama nor the outcome the producers werehoping for — as the cast. Disney seems excited by the concept of entrusting such a voyage to a crew of 18- to 23-year-olds, but it’s hard to imagine audiences finding much to identify with here, when none of these J. Crew types appears ever to have dealt with anything worse than a case of sunburn.
The documentary begins with two girls and a lone black guy in the mix, but only one of them makes the final cut (when 11 of the 15 candidates featured are selected to make the trip). These are hardly everyday kids plucked off the streets, but rather the experienced spawn of whitebread sailing families, born with salt water in their veins; the subtext strongly implies sailing is a sport you’re born into.
And rather than singling out one or two compelling individuals and telling the story through their eyes, editor Paul Crowder attempts to give everyone a fair amount of screen time, ensuring relatively shallow portrayals all around.
Everything is “sick,” “sweet” or “unreal,” according to the young sailors, who sound considerably more eloquent when delivering the confessional-style interviews that serve as the film’s narration throughout. And though narrator Patrick Warburton lays out the trip’s life-and-death stakes in a booming prologue, the team’s poignant rite of passage isn’t exactly reflected in their casual chatter. (Doing without pizza and music for 11 days? Big deal.)
More impressive than anything that unfolds onboard is the daunting task of documenting this voyage on the open seas. While stationary and handheld cameras record the more intimate dynamics above and below deck, the truly breathtaking footage was captured either by helicopter (near land) or from a chase boat fast enough to keep pace with the film’s eponymous TP52 sloop.
The Transpac race itself doesn’t start until nearly halfway through the film, after everyone has undergone safety training, but the excitement certainly picks up once they’re on their way. Overhead maps and fancy computer-generated shots help audiences follow their progress. A patch without wind makes things interesting, as does one surprise shot when the camera looks out over the stern to reveal rival TP52 Samba Pa Ti just behind, as Morning Light takes the lead over a team of experienced pros.
Crowder uses familiar reality-TV tricks — rapidly cutting, zooming and speeding up footage — to supply artificial energy, but it’s telling that an 11-day sailing adventure doesn’t even condense to an hour’s worth of white-knuckle screen time. The right music might have elevated the entire package (consider “Chariots of Fire”), but “Morning Light’s” score is fairly standard, and an end-credits song by three team members suggests these kids should stick to sailing. The sound team works wonders with audio that surely took a worse beating than the boat itself.