(by Dustin Putman
"Dolphin Tale" is good. This statement is not meant to be a direct comment on the film's quality, but on its intent and heart. Indeed, few Hollywood movies mean as well as this one does, its true story of an injured dolphin that loses its tail and must relearn to swim with an artificial fin symbolic of anyone coming to terms with a personal handicap or disability. Not exactly one to embrace subtlety, the picture's themes and messages are pretty blatant and difficult to miss, but also useful. The fact that they are there at all while bathroom humor is nowhere to be found makes it something of a rare live-action family effort. Director Charles Martin Smith and screenwriters Karen Jaszen (2007's "Gracie") and Noam Dromi may be guilty of some overdone flourishes and a few hamstrung plot developments—and studio Warner Bros. Pictures should be ashamed of themselves trying to pass this character-based drama off as a surcharge-heavy 3D release when it is just fine in 2D (the way I blessedly saw it)—but no one can accuse the makers of not being genuinely sincere. Article continues below
11-year-old Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is an introverted loner with several months of boring summer school ahead of him, made all the worse when his only friend, teenage cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), puts his promising swimming career on hold to enlist in the Army. A welcome spurt of excitement comes his way one day when he finds an injured dolphin on the beach. Transported to the Clearwater Marine Hospital for rehabilitation, the dolphin, named Winter, overcomes slim odds of survival but nonetheless loses her tail. Sawyer is taken by Winter and, for the first time in his life, exhibits a true passion for something while slowly breaking free from his shell. Single mother Lorraine (Ashley Judd) sees this in him, but is put in a difficult position when her son starts skipping his summer classes to help Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and precocious daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) with Winter. As she gets better, the resourceful dolphin begins to swim without her tail, but the new motion of her gimpy backside (side to side rather than the correct up and down) puts her spinal cord in imminent danger. They turn to prosthetic designer Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) for help in designing a comfortable, workable fin to replace her stump, but will she take to it? With the hospital suddenly threatened for closure, Sawyer and Hazel make it their mission to find a way to save Winter and the facility she now calls home.
Accompanying the opening credits of "Dolphin Tale" is an underwater montage of dolphins freely swimming in their natural habitat. It should be majestic to behold, but is ruined by the unsightly use of computer-generated sea creatures in the place of the real thing. As technology has supposedly gotten better, it is amazing how far cinema has fallen and how lazy filmmakers have gotten. Did 1993's "Free Willy" use fake killer whales? No. So why would it have been so difficult to capture authentic footage of dolphins going about their oceanic business? Fortunately, this egregious incorporation of CG effects take a vacation soon after as the story proper takes hold. From there, the film's biggest offense is just how formulaic and on-the-nose it tends to be. Adults will be able to predict the conclusion long before it arrives, though, it should be said, the restraint used in avoiding a romance between Sawyer's single mom and Hazel's widower father is pleasantly surprising. As obligatory narrative happenings mount—there's a category one hurricane that sweeps through, several failed attempts at putting a prosthesis on Winter, and a climactic fundraiser carnival—it is the quieter moments that give the picture its down-to-earth grace. A scene where Sawyer drags his mom to the marine hospital and she sees him light up like he never has before is quietly and simply affecting. So is a would-be sappy part where they realize how much handicapped children seem to relate to and benefit from Winter. The friendship that develops between Sawyer and the more outspoken Hazel is also sweetly understated. There's a great moment when they discover their loss of a parent is a shared commonality between them. Sawyer's father walked out on his family ("he never calls or writes"), while Hazel's mother passed away. "My mom died when I was seven," she explains, and then says with a bittersweet smile, "Never calls, never writes."
The usually blond-haired Nathan Gamble (2008's "Marley & Me") receives a brunette dye job as Sawyer, the young actor perhaps overestablishing his character's timidity early on before both he and his on-screen role simultaneously come into their own. His enthusiasm and love for Winter is particularly never in doubt, and this—along with his respective relationships to Hazel, mom Lorraine, and cousin Kyle—are what carry things through the plot's more familiar devices. Newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff is quite a find as Hazel, her relative inexperience an advantageous trait to go along with her self-assured naturalism. She and Gamble don't get to explore the same level of depth, but their interplay positively reminds on occasion to the lovely bond between Elijah Wood and Thora Birch in 1991's sublime "Paradise." Adult parts are more workmanlike, though Ashley Judd (2010's "Tooth Fairy") manages to transcend the relatively thankless Lorraine with a bout of touchingly real motherly affection and Morgan Freeman (2010's "Red") brings dignity and warmth to the sympathetic Dr. McCarthy.
The last half-hour of "Dolphin Tale" is more or less a waiting game for all the various problems to work themselves out, but director Charles Martin Smith treats them with an honesty that befits something children will be able to learn from. Sure, the film has plenty that could be done without, not the least being a pointless, far-fetched interlude involving a runaway remote-control helicopter that feels like it has come from a completely different movie, but the solid-hearted earnestness and attention to people and animals over slapstick and inappropriate humor evens the wrongs out. As Sawyer and Winter swim peacefully together in the final scene—an embodiment of pure, untainted love between man and animal—the results are kind of beautiful. Curmudgeons could probably pick it apart 'til the cows come home, but "Dolphin Tale" is exceedingly hard to dislike.