Dolphin Tale (2011) / Drama
MPAA Rated: PG for some mild thematic elements
Running Time: 113 min.
Cast: Nathan Gamble, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Cozi Zeuhlsdorff, Morgan Freeman, Winter, Austin Stowell, Kris Kristofferson, Frances Sternhagen, Austin Highsmith, Richard Libertini
Director: Charles Martin Smith
Screenplay: Karen Janszen, Noam Dromi
Review published September 11, 2014
Dolphin Tale is the inspiring true story of a bottlenose dolphin named Winter, who is the backbone of this heartwarming, if heavily contrived, family drama about overcoming adversity and the perseverance of community in effecting change for the needs of a few. Winter is a female dolphin caught in a crab trap, found injured off of the coast of Florida, rescued by an introverted 11-year-old boy named Sawyer Nelson (Gamble, The Dark Knight), who becomes the catalyst for a rescue team of marine biologists at a nearby hospital/aquarium to try to save her. When Winter has her gangrenous tail amputated to survive, it becomes clear that she won't be able to live long on her own without help from science.
Directed by family film vet Charles Martin Smith (The Snow Walker, Trick or Treat), the right notes are hit at just enough right times to make this worthwhile family entertainment, even if the liberal amounts of cloying or cute moments do tend to undermine the seriousness of the tone and the respectability of the story, which trades in plausibility wholesale in an effort to put smiles on the faces of the kids in the viewing audiences whenever possible (a scene involving the kids playing with a runaway remote-control toy helicopter serves absolutely no purpose save to give 3D ticket-purchasers something to feel they got their money's worth to see). It's not anything resembling high art, but it is nearly impossible to dislike, thanks to its centering around one of the cutest creatures in the animal kingdom in dolphins, as well as uts tying in of Winter's story to that of injured humans who are trying to return to normality in their lives, thanks to breakthroughs in the world of artificial limbs.
Young actor Nathan Gamble is surrounded by an impressive cast, which includes Ashley Judd (Bug) as his single mother, Harry Connick Jr. (P.S. I Love You) as the widower head of the marine rehab center, Morgan Freeman (RED) as the military prosthetics expert, and Kris Kristofferson (Dreamer) in a minor role as a sage aquarium mentor and father to Connick's character. While the adults, who stay surprisingly romance-free despite setting up an easy pairing, are there to lend a hand when needed, this story is really mostly about the friendship that forms between a boy and a dolphin, with the former finally finding something to pour his interest into, and the latter able to find enough of a social balance to continue to thrive in a world without other dolphins to frolic with. Some may be disappointed to learn that the human characters are fictional, but the fact that Winter's recovery story is real will likely be enough to pacify all but the most hard-hearted of Scrooges.
It's a broad-stroked, formulaic and very manufactured story, to be sure, and the obviousness of the CGI, especially during the film's climax, pushes the suspension of disbelief to the near breaking point. The kids, while cute, are written to be a bit too precocious at times, and the dolphins exhibit anthropomorphic qualities not found in nature. Smith's eagerness to please can make for some sickeningly sweet moments that make us feel guilty for swallowing them all up wholesale. The live-action Disney-esque film ends with its most heartwarming moments showing the actual footage of the Winter's journey from a very young injured dolphin with little hope of survival to full recovery and inspiration to many. It's a pleasant, vanilla kind of entertainment for those times when you and your family just want some simple pleasures.
©2014 Vince Leo