REVIEW: Inspirational Dolphin Tale Doesn't Go All Soppy
You couldn't come up with a simpler, more nakedly inspirational story than the one told in Dolphin Tale: Unhappy, disengaged child of single mom finds a wounded dolphin caught in a trap's ropes and cuts it free; proceeds to bond with the rescue group that's working to rehabilitate said dolphin; becomes a chief player in dolphin's gradual and difficult return to swimming with confidence.
But even if Dolphin Tale hits every note square on the nose -- or maybe because it does -- watching it is surprisingly pleasurable. Part of the appeal is the fact that the dolphin in the movie plays a version of herself: In real life, as in the movie, this dolphin's name is Winter, and in Florida in 2005, when she was just a baby, she became entangled in the ropes of a crab trap. She lost circulation in her tail, which then had to be amputated. In order to swim again Winter needed to be outfitted with a prosthetic tail, but finding a way to attach it proved difficult. Technicians eventually developed a special, extremely soft sleeve material that came to be called "Winter's Gel"; it's now used with human prosthetics as well.
And face it, dolphins just have great on-screen presence. OK, they do all look alike. But it's still easy to root for Winter, with her arrow-shaped smile and mischievous eyes. It doesn't hurt that director Charles Martin Smith -- who may be better known as an actor from his roles in pictures like American Graffiti and The Untouchables -- has a relatively light touch. Even when the kids (and older military veterans) who are battling their own physical challenges start showing up to be inspired by Winter and her new tail, the story doesn't become sodden with sentimentality. When a little girl in a wheelchair announces, "Winter is just like me!" you can see she's stretching the point a bit. Then again, how do you get a dolphin used to a prosthetic tail? It can't be easy, and Smith -- working from a script by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi -- focuses mostly on that challenge and on Winter's eventual triumph.
Nathan Gamble plays Sawyer, the kid who's lucky enough to be carrying a pocketknife at just the right moment. He becomes drawn into Winter's life, and into the family of Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.) and his young daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who are trying to rehabilitate her. Sawyer also starts skipping summer school to help out. But when his mother (played by the preternaturally calm and commonsense presence known as Ashley Judd) finds out exactly why he's cutting class, she works out a special deal for him with the teacher: She's never seen him so engrossed in a project, and she figures that can't be a bad thing.
It's not, and when a local prosthetics doctor, played by Morgan Freeman, is enlisted to design an artificial tail for Winter, things get even more interesting. Will she reject the prototype tail? Hell, yes! Like most creatures of taste and discrimination, she's not easy to please, but as you can imagine, the good doctor eventually gets it right.
A picture like Dolphin Tale can rise or fall on the performances of the child actors involved, and luckily, both Gamble and Zuehlsdorff keep things low-key. They don't ratchet up the cuteness, or milk the more dramatic scenes for pathos. In general, there's nothing too upsetting in Dolphin Tale for even the most tender-hearted little folk. The picture skims along quite nicely, swerving to avoid potential rough patches. And as shot by Karl Walter Lindenlaub, it also looks crisp and beautiful, rendered in a palette of ocean blues and rocky grays. As inspirational dolphin stories go, Dolphin Tale is a pretty good one.