Based on a true story, this inspirational tale about a Little Dolphin Who Could hits theaters September 23rd and will leave you feeling warm and fuzzy all over. Since it’s hard to dislike even a mediocre “animal hero” pic, Dolphin Tale will swim into your heart despite a modicum of melodrama and a heavy dose of predictability.
When I first heard that Dolphin Tale was a movie about a dolphin that gets a prosthetic tail, I thought it was a joke. As it turns out, not only is this a true story but the tail-less dolphin named Winter is somewhat of a celebrity thanks to an online campaign and word-of-mouth.
The film’s star is definitely Winter, but as far as the human story goes it’s all about a boy named Sawyer and his unique friendship with the crippled dolphin. Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) doesn’t quite fit in and is dealing (unsuccessfully) with some emotional issues. One morning he spots a little dolphin washed up on the shore, its tail caught up in a crab fishing line. As Sawyer waits for the animal rescue, he shares a connection with the helpless dolphin as he cuts it free from the rope.
Soon Sawyer is involved in Winter’s rehabilitation, and develops a friendship with the animal that not only brings him out of his shell, but gives him a reason to be happy. All the human friends he makes at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium also help his state of mind, from spunky home-schooled Hazel to her man-with-a-mission dad, Clay (Harry Conick Jr.), to the old wise grandfather, Reed (Kris Kristofferson).
The problem is, Winter’s tail has to be amputated due to extensive damage and as as she adapts to the loss, she learns to swim with her stump. This causes the doctors to foresee disaster, as her spine is bending the wrong way and it will eventually lead to paralysis and death for the little dolphin.
Just as everything seems hopeless, Sawyer is inspired by his cousin Kyle, who had his legs damaged in war and makes use of a prosthetic. With the help of quirky but brilliant prosthetics designer Dr. Cameron (Morgan Freeman), Winter gets a new tail and a new lease on life.
Hold the communal sigh of relief, please. There are still some tense moments in the film until the completely expected but no-less-satisfying ending. This is one of those under-dog animal yarns that are sure to make you tear up at least once; but don’t expect much cinematic nuance.
The direction, from the very talented actor/writer/director Charles Martin Smith, was on the mundane side. Unlike the story of Winter, the direction was rather uninspired, and the use of poor CGI took away from the underwater animal/nature scenes. The shots of Winter (playing herself) were some of the better moments, being at least realistic. And as I watched this in completely unnecessary 3D, I can only say the few scenes of scrolling 3D design graphics playing over the making-a-brilliant-tail-prosthetic musical montage did little to improve the film.
The collection of actors is pretty impressive given the scope of the film, but like I said nothing extraordinary. Ashley Judd delivered a competent performance as Sawyer’s mom, while Freeman stole the show as the strange “mad scientist” character. Connick Jr. was somewhat disappointing, but then again, I never expect a whole lot from him as far as actual acting goes. As for Gamble, he gave a heartfelt performance as young Sawyer, and went far to sell the earnest outsider as a character that just needed a little direction.
Beyond feeling like the filmmakers were playing a little exploitative with a movie about the cutest tail-less dolphin you’ve ever met, Dolphin Tale was inspiring and sweet and everything you’d expect. Putting the after-school-special feel aside, this was and is a great story about an animal overcoming a disability and fighting the odds, and Winter’s story has spread across the nation and become particularly inspirational to people with disabilities. Is Dolphin Tale going to win any awards? Probably not. But it’s a sweet family film that’s definitely worth a watch.