“You could have drowned or gotten stabbed by a swordfish for god sakes”
People who have seen the trailer love to call it Free Willy 2011. While the subject of a kid doing all he can to save a marine animal from death does eventually come up in Dolphin Tale, it isn’t an issue until we’re well into the film. No, at the start it’s all about young Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), lost and trying to find a place in the world. A quiet kid with little to no social skills and horrible grades in school, he feels much more at home in the garage amidst the tools his father left behind after walking out on the family five years previous. His mom (Ashley Judd) tries her best to reach him, but the only one who truly gets through is older cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell). A swimming champion now off to fight in the Army, Sawyer feels as though he’s being left again.
It’s with this depression that director Charles Martin Smith, (a veteran of child-fare with Air Bud whom many would recognize as Terry “The Toad” Fields from American Graffiti), introduces us to this story inspired by true events. Angry and despondent, Sawyer slogs out of bed and barely makes it to summer school. His aunt and uncle worry, his mother doesn’t know what to do, and the only love he expresses is for the model helicopter he works on tirelessly. But all that changes one day while biking to school. Flagged down by a fisherman who has just found a trapped and beached dolphin, he uses his pocketknife to release the mammal from the rope and receives a tweeting sound in return. This “dolphin thanks” proves important in helping to convince Dr. Clay (Harry Connick Jr.) to let the boy assist him at his marine life hospital. Unable to feed or lift her spirits, Clay sees how Sawyer possesses the unique bond that will save her—even after an infection leads to the amputating of her tale.
Named Winter by Clay’s daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) because their last two rescues with seasonal names recovered, this creature is pretty miraculous. By playing herself, we see firsthand the process endured to beat all odds and survive to swim again. Adopting a side-to-side motion to move through the water like a snake, Winter builds her strength and appears ready to face the world once more. Her recovery is inspiring in itself, but her effect on Sawyer is also a large part of this family film. Finally engaged and excited, coming to Clay’s aquarium each day changes the boy in the best way. He is up early with a bounce in his step and a smile on his face. The shy kid we saw at the start is gone forever. Sawyer had no friends, purpose, or ambition, but now he’s part of something more than himself. With strong themes about family showing through the rather conventional script, this lost boy expands his concept of the word and learns life is about those who stick around.
But as I said earlier, Winter only appears ready to continue her life without assistance. Sadly, her new swimming style is ruining her vertebrae and risks killing her if not rectified soon. As a result, the double meaning of the film’s title finally comes through in its second half with the idea of a prosthetic tale. Inspired by the limbless veterans playing basketball at the VA hospital his cousin Kyle is recovering at—a plot point that shows how sometimes what we consider contrived and lazy writing does actually happen in real life—Sawyer enlists the help of Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) to achieve a happy ending. Hardships will abound, though, as Winter refuses the tale and bashes it to pieces against the pool wall just as a lack of funds and devastating hurricane put the hospital in dire financial straits. Time, it appears, has run out and if Winter doesn’t find a way to improve her swimming health soon, the inspirational story will finish short.
Not necessarily a film I’d seek out, Dolphin Tale isn’t horrible. In fact, the kids at my screening seemed to eat it up just as I’m sure I did Free Willy when their age. Children love cool beasts like dolphins and Winter doesn’t disappoint, bringing her own personality to the story. The rest of the acting is adequate, the humans shown up by their marine counterpart often. Stowell’s frat boy smile irked me consistently, although he takes his character through his struggles well; Gamble’s deer in the headlight stare annoys too, but it’s understandable since he’s over-compensating holding back from his more normally out-going personality; and others like Judd, Ray McKinnon, and Kris Kristofferson are wasted with little to do. I really liked the Nelson family, though, as Connick Jr. portrays the bleeding heart animal doctor to perfection and Zuehlsdorff is wonderfully precocious and borderline over-the-top. Freeman, however, is the one that steals the show. He’s having fun and we are with him as a result.
In the end, Dolphin Tale succeeds in its goals to entertain and inspire kids, but as a film doesn’t quite bring anything new to the table. Overlong in parts and obvious at every step, I can’t help but feel it would have been better served as a smaller scale television production that dealt more with the story than the theatrics. There is no reason this movie should be in 3D other than to fleece parents out of the premium price point. Besides a brief montage while McCarthy and Clay brainstorm how to build a prosthetic tale—the use of three dimensions does add something to the blueprint-like drawings popping up onscreen—the conversion is barely noticed. And when they do try and cater to the effect with scenes like a model helicopter going haywire, it does nothing to service the plot and it’s orchestration is unbelievably fake. The impetus needed to stay on Winter and Sawyer’s relationship, that’s where it works best. Unfortunately it only does it enough warrant a weekend rental.
 L-r: JULIANA HARKAVY as Rebecca, NATHAN GAMBLE as Sawyer Nelson, AUSTIN HIGHSMITH as Phoebe, COZI ZUEHLSDORFF as Hazel Haskett and HARRY CONNICK, JR. as Dr. Clay Haskett in Alcon Entertainment’s family adventure “DOLPHIN TALE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo by Jon Farmer
 MORGAN FREEMAN as Dr. Cameron McCarthy in Alcon Entertainment’s family adventure “DOLPHIN TALE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
 WINTER in Alcon Entertainment’s family adventure ‘DOLPHIN TALE,’ a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures