Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Genre: Family, Drama
Opens locally Friday, September 23rd, 2011
Run Time: 1 hour 53 minutes, Rated PG
Starring: Nathan Gamble, Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, Austin Stowell, Cozy Zuehlsdorff, Winter
Directed by Charles Martin Smith (Boris and Natasha, Air Bud)
The film's title, "Dolphin Tale," of course is meant to read: "Dolphin Tail," as the main story revolves around a dolphin who loses his tail in a crab trap. There have been loads of awful "family-friendly" films that have come out in recent years, and this one seems to have the makings of another cringe-inducing, wholesome piece of fluff...an easy paycheck for an A-list Hollywood cast (think Robert Duvall in "Seven Days in Utopia.") But make no mistake..."Dolphin Tale" may just be one of the better family films of the year, reminiscent of movies that I remember watching growing up in the 80s, where people help one another, and show compassion for each other. An inspirational, positive story that stands out as a throw-back, when compared to recent movies.
The "tale" is really about a boy, and his dolphin. Ashley Judd plays a single mom struggling to raise her only child, Sawyer (Gamble.) He is uninterested in most things, and a poor student. His only role model is his cousin Kyle (Stowell,) a championship swimmer but headed off to the army. Once Kyle leaves, Sawyer stumbles upon a team of rescue workers working to save a dolphin that has washed up on shore, with it's tail caught in a crab trap. The moment the boy has with the dolphin bonds them, and he spends the next few weeks skipping summer school and sneaking into the Clearwater Marine Hospital, to work and care for Winter.
He is brought into the hospital after befriending Hazel (Zuehlsdorff,) the daughter of the head doctor at the marina played by Harry Connick Jr. Dr. Clay is at first skeptical of having this kid hang around, but his effect on the dolphin is remarkable...it only seems to respond to young Sawyer. With it's tail damaged beyond repair, it is amputated, and Winter learns to swim side to side, instead of up and down like a normal dolphin would.
Meanwhile, Sawyer gets bad news about his cousin Kyle, and through this experience he is introduced to Dr. Cameron McCarthy, played with a twinkle in his eye by Morgan Freeman. The fringe doctor specializes in prosthetic limbs for fallen soldiers. When the marina finds out that Winter's abnormal motion is creating damage to the dolphin's spine, Dr. Cameron is recruited to create a prosthetic tail for the dolphin, to save his life.
With fine acting, you must also give credit to gentle direction from Charles Martin Smith, an actor himself. Many of these characters are types that we've seen before, with plotlines we've experienced hundreds of times. Remarkably, everything works well, even if it is a bit heavy-handed towards the end, as movies like this just can't seem to avoid. By the way, be sure to see this one in 3D...it's is one of the best looking live-action 3D films that I have seen.
In a movie like this, about sea life and dolphins, it may be cliche to tell you to look a bit beneath the surface. But if you do you will find a much-deeper than usual string of emotion that runs through "Dolphin Tale." We feel for Sawyer, who has no male role model, but finally gets inspired by something. We see the struggling Dr. Clay, who is a single father and who's hospital is about to get bought out by a local businessman. In a different movie, Dr. Clay and Sawyer's mom may have hooked up, with the two kids pushing the two of them together. But this movie is focused on inspiration, and for thinking outside of the pool. It succeeds in creating a believable family environment, and you would have to have a cruel, black heart not to be touched by the end. There is palpable humanity on display, and people rely and help one another to get by. Characters in the film learn that they are capable of great things, even if these great things are different from what they had hoped.
Of course "Dolphin Tale" was inspired by a true story, and at the very end we are treated to actual footage of Winter, from the rescue on the beach throughout her journey. It's a great story to experience with your children, and the kind of film that is moving for even us adults. I went into this with low expectations, and found myself very pleasantly surprised.
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