In Morning Light, studio figurehead and ocean-racing enthusiast Roy Disney seeks to capture the experience of racing the Transpac, a much-revered, rightfully daunting 2500-mile sailing competition running from California to Hawaii. The filmmakers wanted young men and women as their subjects, all sailing novices, to portray how the challenges of a race can galvanize teamwork, challenge untried souls, and even serve as a metaphor for life itself. It’s all very well-intentioned, and the bright-eyed, fresh-faced kids Disney and co-producer Leslie Demeuse bring together—all ranging in age from their late teens to early 20s—carry an appeal and spontaneity that may have worked as the raw material for the film’s internal drama. But at 100 minutes, the documentary bites off more than it can chew. Writer-director Mark Monroe aims to weave together the profiles of 15 personalities and their team dynamics, while depicting the rigors of training for the big race. No one in the team leaves a lasting impression, and that’s less their fault than a consequence of overstuffed filmmaking. Cheesily contextualized pop tunes fill out the soundtrack while the film’s subjects make observations about racing, sailing, ambition, deprivation, and so on, that are no more revealing than tidbits you’d find in any connect-the-dots reality-TV show. The structure of the documentary follows the process of training, team selection (when the 15 members are whittled to 11), the buildup to the race, and the beat-by-beat of the race itself. But for those of us attuned to the punched-up presentation of The Amazing Race and Survivor, built week by week to maximize human drama and suspense, Morning Light is just reality lite. The visuals are often gorgeous (though, I suspect some benefit from digital sweetening), and no one in the documentary, thankfully, is grating or obnoxious. But the movie only takes glancing shots at its objectives, never satisfying on an interpersonal level or as a primer on open-sea racing (what the masterful Riding Giants accomplished for surfing). What Disney and colleagues should’ve done was pitch their project on an epic scale on a season’s worth of television. That would’ve done justice to their spunky, enthusiastic subjects, as well as to the glories of an inherently exciting and exhilarating sport.
The archival footage sprinkled throughout lacks for vibrancy, but the rest of the film-shot in the slick, headache-inducing mode of a reality television program-is strong, even though small-object detail is weak in spots. The soundtrack of incessant pop songs is dubious but well modulated.
Hosted by a contractually obligated Jason Earles (from Hannah Montana, apparently), "Stories from the Sea" is a making-of featurette of sorts, interspersing scenes from the film (as well as behind-the-scenes footage) with interviews from talent and select crew, including Roy Disney. Redundant but better constructed is the commercial-free ESPN special "Morning Light: Making the Cut." Rounding out the disc is a bunch of previews for other Disney products, including a plug for the upcoming Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs Blu-ray/DVD combo, featuring some nasty digital artifacting on the Queen's eyebrow that will hopefully be scrubbed clean come October.
Edited to induce seizures, Morning Light should appeal to fans of MTV and water sports.