With Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Nathan Gamble, Kris Kristofferson; Running Time: 113 minutes; Rated PG (for some mild thematic elements); Written by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi; Directed by Charles Martin Smith.
DOLPHIN TALE may not be a perfect film, but it is an ideal family film. Making one is not as easy as it sounds. Making it so that that 2D version plays so well that you needn’t waste the extra money for the 3D glasses is even better.
To work, a family film has to accomplish two things. First, it has to appeal to kids, preferably teaching them something positive instead of simply reinforcing their anti-social instincts. Second, it has to have enough going on, at some level, to engage the adults who will be forced to take said youngsters to the movie. Thus they won’t spend two hours peeking at their watches and silently cursing the adult who got to stay home. “The Smurfs,” for example, succeeded at the first and failed miserably at the second.
“Dolphin Tale” is based on the true story of Winter, a dolphin whose tail was damaged by a crab trap, leading to its eventual amputation. The dolphin is rescued by Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a young boy suffering his way through summer school. He becomes interested in the dolphin’s welfare, and discovers the aquarium where it is being tended.
There he befriends a young girl named Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), her scientist father (Harry Connick, Jr.) and her fisherman grandfather (Kris Kristofferson). The scientist is trying to save Winter. However the prognosis isn’t good, as a dolphin needs its tail to maneuver in water and although Winter learns to compensate, the resulting damage may be just as harmful.
However dressed up it is for the movie version, what happens next is incredible. A doctor (Morgan Freeman) who helps injured war veterans – like Sawyer’s cousin – agrees to try to develop a prosthetic dolphin tail. It has to be functional and it has to be something Winter will accept as a natural extension of himself. This is easier said than done. As the film’s poster gives away, they eventually succeeded. Since Winter is “playing” himself, we see this amazing dolphin in action.
For kids, the appeal is obvious. This is a story of a young boy who saves the day and even gets to swim and play with Winter. What’s not to like? For adults, there is the strong cast, including Ashley Judd as Sawyer’s mom and the lack of pandering with artificial subplots. Judd and Connick do not have a romantic relationship, even though both are single, but that’s not what the movie is about.
Instead we get Winter’s tale, and how being part of it proves to be an education for Sawyer. He learns not only about dolphins, but the responsibility that we have in caring for other living creatures. He makes non-obvious connections in getting the human doctor and dolphin together, and he has to learn to express himself so that the adults will understand and appreciate his ideas. As his hapless summer school teacher is forced to admit, the boy’s absence from summer school to care for Winter has been a learning experience.
Parents and kids alike will find the challenge of saving Winter an inspirational tale with much of the rest of it simply window dressing. Will the aquarium avoid bankruptcy? Will Sawyer’s injured cousin overcome his pessimism and get on with his life? Will Sawyer and Hazel become lifelong friends? Parents will be ahead of the curve on all the plot points but won’t mind. “Dolphin Tale” knows what its real attraction is, and it plays well for all ages.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.