The producers of “The Blind Side” are back with another true story family feature. “Dolphin Tale” is inspired by Winter, a dolphin that swims with a prosthetic tail and serves as encouragement for handicapped people of all ages.
The story follows Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a quiet kid whose cousin and only real friend (Austin Stowell) has just shipped off to the military. During a visit to the beach, Sawyer finds a dolphin, Winter, tangled in a crab trap and helps the team from Tampa Bay’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium to rescue her. When the injury requires Clearwater director Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) to amputate Winter’s tail, Sawyer and Haskett’s chatterbox daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) are there to help Winter learn to swim again. But Winter’s new swimming style puts pressure on her spinal cord and threatens to paralyze her.
Meanwhile Sawyer’s cousin returns home after being wounded in an explosion during his tour of duty. While visiting him at a veteran’s hospital, Sawyer runs into prosthetics specialist Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman). In a race against time, Sawyer convinces the doctor to create a prosthetic tail for Winter while financial concerns threaten to close Clearwater permanently.
If it feels like you’re watching “Free Willy” (1993) or any number of 1990s animal-themed movies, that’s because the minds behind it were responsible for some of those films. Director Charles Martin Smith directed “Air Bud” (1997) and one of the screenwriters, Karen Janszen, wrote “Free Willy 2” (1995). Janszen co-wrote the story with first-time writer Noam Dromi. Their end product is sometimes corny, sometimes moving. To maximize the 3D, Smith uses long montages of Sawyer swimming with Winter, and a goofy chaotic scene where Hazel loses control of Sawyer’s model helicopter and crashes it. These scenes differentiate this generally enjoyable family film from classics of the genre, since they’re fun for the kids but generally pointless.
The story also takes a long time to set up. Half the film has passed before the Clearwater team even begins to think about using a prosthetic tail on Winter. That’s when Freeman comes along, and his presence gives the story needed momentum.
The acting is solid throughout. Gamble and first timer Zuehlsdorff as homeschooled Hazel are both strong young performers. Their supporting cast, including Sawyer’s mother (Ashley Judd) and Hazel’s grandfather (Kris Kristofferson), are genuine, though not likely to win any awards like Sandra Bullock from Alcon Entertainment’s hit “The Blind Side.”
As a whole the story’s pretty PC. Clearwater is struggling financially because of lost government grants, and they are fighting to keep a real estate mogul from buying up the property. For Winter – a disabled animal that no other marine hospitals or zoos want – this means she will have to be put down once her home is bought out from under her. (SPOILER) In the end the real estate mogul saves the day, buying Clearwater and funding it instead of building another hotel in its place. But whether this is supposed to be an anti-corporate or pro-philanthropic message is debatable. Also, young Hazel prays once for help from above – but she prays to her mother who has passed away. It’s a scene that’s kind of distracting and unnecessary.
The biggest take away though comes from the more obvious theme: all life is precious. And I’m not just talking about the dolphin. It’s the veterans that the film dwells on, the handicapped that it portrays not just sympathetically but vibrantly. In one scene a mother brings her obsessed daughter to Clearwater to see Winter. Only as she helps her daughter out of their van do we realize why her daughter has been so caught up with this particular dolphin. The little girl is disabled herself. The film later closes with documentary footage of Winter’s rescue and rehabilitation, along with visits from disabled children and adults who come to be inspired by an animal that beat the odds.
While there’s a good deal of added plot and montage 3D for the kids, “Dolphin Tale” is a feel-good film that’s enjoyable and inspiring for all ages.