Director Charles Martin Smith’s “Dolphin Tale” was one of the few pleasant surprises in what has been an otherwise disappointing year for Hollywood at the box office. Over the fall, the 3D children’s film, based on the true story of a disabled dolphin named Winter, came out of nowhere and chugged along to a surprising $71 million gross — which, quite remarkably, is only a little less than where the high-profile “Muppets” reboot will top off. And you can see why. For young kids, “Dolphin Tale” has much to offer, even if parents are forced to sit through a television movie-level screenplay.
Nathan Gamble plays Sawyer, an introverted adolescent who feels out of place in the world, unless he’s with his older, college-age cousin Kyle. Sawyer’s father’s abandoned him, and now Kyle is leaving to join the Marines. To make matters worse, Kyle is failing every subject, and with school just out for the year, he only has summer school to look forward to.
The plot turns when Winter (played by the real Winter) washes up on a Florida beach tangled in fishing net. Clay (Harry Connick Jr.), a widowed veterinarian who runs an aquarium/animal hospital on the verge of bankruptcy, and his adolescent daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) attempt to nurse Winter back to health, but due to the dolphin’s circulation being cut off, part of his tail has to be amputated. With Sawyer’s dedicated help, Winter rebounds and is even able to swim sans tail, but the unnatural swimming action will lead to serious medical complications down the road. What to do?
Smith does bring a nice visual flourish to a flat script. What’s lacking more than anything, though, is the development of the relationships between the characters. The main players — Clay, Sawyer, his nurse mother (Ashley Judd), and Hazel — all cement who they are to one another early in the second act, which makes too much of the remaining plot feel episodic. For instance, a few sparks seem to fly when Connick’s widower and Judd’s divorcee first meet, but the relationship never evolves from there.
Kris Kristofferson has a few scenes as a wise old gramps who spouts pearls of eye-opening wisdom that move people to action when the plot demands it, and Morgan Freeman hams it up as a Veterans Administration prosthetics doctor recruited to invent a replacement tale for Winter. Both actors have been better. The other performances are also lacking, but that has more to do with a script that fails to give these otherwise fine actors any moments other than those that service a predictable story.
Your child will be told that land developers are the bad guys (unless they don’t develop land) and that fishing does terrible things to our cute animal friends. Something also feels wrong about using an injured war veteran as little more than a victim/plot device. On the plus side, when Sawyer comes out of his shell determined to save the aquarium from those evil land developers, it’s through self-reliance and entrepreneurship as opposed to montages of a young boy filling out applications for government grants.
The uplifting, heartwarming moments arise from the film’s notion of how a disabled dolphin is able to inspire others to overcome their own disability. In other words: humans didn’t save the dolphin, the dolphin saved them: the disabled vet, the little girl in the wheelchair, and little boy lost Sawyer. On a shallow, manipulative level it works in spots, but this is no “Lassie Come Home.”
Heck, it’s not even “Andre.”
‘Dolphin Tale’ is available at Amazon.