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FILM REVIEW: Dolphin Tale serves up solid dose of family fun Bill Fentum, Sep 23, 2011
PHOTOS COURTESY WARNER BROS.
Winter, a dolphin that survived a serious injury and now lives at the marine aquarium in Clearwater, Fla., stars in "Dolphin Tale," her own fictionalized biopic.
By Bill Fentum Associate Editor
Dolphin Tale Rated PG for mild thematic elements
At the core of Dolphin Tale there’s a true story that many people have already seen in TV news reports.
In 2005 a three-month-old bottle-nosed dolphin was discovered trapped in a crab net off the Florida coast, nearly dead. The ropes had prevented blood from circulating to her tail, which had then begun to deteriorate.
Winter—so named because she was found in that season of the year—pulled through thanks to doctors at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. But the tail was lost, and without it, she could only swim with a side-to-side wiggle that might eventually damage her spine.
To solve the problem, specialists created a prosthesis that Winter now wears part-time, keeping her muscles strong and her spine in alignment. Because survival in the wild is no longer possible for her, she remains at the aquarium where media attention has drawn visitors from around the world. And her caregivers say she’s been something of a “wounded healer,” particularly inspiring to children who live with medical conditions and disabilities of their own.
Sound like a story worth telling on film? The makers of Dolphin Tale thought so, but the final product isn’t a documentary. Instead, it’s a pleasant if typical dramatic recreation, with Winter playing herself alongside a cast of big names.
In the fictional part, 12-year-old Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) lives in Clearwater with his mom Lorraine (Ashley Judd). An introverted boy hurt by the breakup of his parents’ marriage and his dad’s total departure, Sawyer must also say goodbye to his personal hero, cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), a soldier who is leaving to serve overseas.
Sawyer, in familiar Hollywood fashion, is on the beach one morning when the poor dolphin washes up on shore. Because he’s the one who cuts the rope, a silent bond seems to form between the boy and the rescued Winter; haunted by the encounter, he soon sneaks into the aquarium to check on her progress.
There, he meets Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), a youngster about Sawyer’s age (naturally) and every bit as outgoing as he is shy. Lorraine, at first worried her son will be too distracted from schoolwork, relaxes when she sees what the experience is doing for him: No longer in his shell, Sawyer is regaining a passion for life and learning.
But there’s trouble ahead. Dr. Haskett hasn’t yet figured out how to protect Winter’s spine, and word comes that Kyle has been injured in combat. He returns home, less seriously wounded than we might have feared but without the use of his right leg.
That’s when Sawyer meets Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), a prosthetic limb specialist who helps Kyle at the VA hospital, creating a brace for his leg. The boy wonders if a similar device might save Winter . . . and from there we’re on our way to the expected happy ending.
Sure, in most ways this is pretty routine stuff. The kids are charming, and a pesky pelican hangs around the aquarium for comic relief. Dr. McCarthy is a standard eccentric inventor (in this case, with a predilection for cheeseburgers) and even Kris Kristofferson is on hand as Dr. Haskett’s father, a wisdom-spouting old seaman.
About the only cliché missing is a romance between Lorraine and widower Dr. Haskett, which may be coming if there’s a sequel!
For all its contrivances, Dolphin Tale wins points for two solid, central themes. First, we see Winter and Kyle’s innate will to survive their ordeals, with compassionate support from others. And related to that, Sawyer comes to see he still has plenty of family around—besides his mother and cousin, several new friends and in a universal sense, Winter, too.
OK, so the only “spiritual” element is a brief scene of young Hazel looking upward and asking for a miracle, not from God but, rather, her late mother. Indeed, this is Hollywood.
In the end, though, it’s also a diverting couple of hours (in 3-D, at some theaters) for families with young kids.