The curse of the dolphin, according to Ric O'Barry, the former Flipper trainer and the anti-dolphin hunting activist featured in the 2009 documentary The Cove, is that they have smiley faces. That's made the intelligent, trainable animals particularly popular kidnap victims to be put in aquariums around the world, and thus a favourite subjects for kids' toys and movies.
With Dolphin's Tale, a 3-D family film by the same production team that brought us The Blind Side, a potentially appealing story about a rescued disabled dolphin gets smothered with inspirational family values guff. Based on the true case of a juvenile female dolphin who had her tale amputated after injuring it in a crab trap off the coast of Florida in 2005, the film spreads the pathos around with numerous fictional embellishments. Along with the wounded dolphin, there are two kids with single parents, an embittered Afghanistan war veteran amputee, a marine animal hospital under threat from creditors, and both Kris Kristofferson and Morgan Freeman offering gruff wisdom.
At the core of the movie is a familiar story of a lonely boy and his special animal friend, Here, the film's best asset is Nathan Gamble ( The Dark Knight, Babel) as Sawyer, a solemn 11-year-old living in Clearwater, Fla., with his nurse mother (Ashley Judd) after dad has abandoned them. When Sawyer's soldier cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), an Olympic swimming hopeful, is shipped overseas, Sawyer is left with nothing to look forward to but remedial summer school.
All this changes one morning when Sawyer, on his way to school, sees a beached dolphin caught in a trap. He helps a marine animal rescue crew free the animal before they take it away to the nearby marine animal hospital, and later he skips school to check on its health. The dolphin, now dubbed Winter, is under the care of the family who run the place: Veterinarian dad Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.) his chipper home-schooled daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), a comically intrusive pelican and Grandpa Reed (Kristofferson), who share quarters on a houseboat.
After the first glimmer of hope – only Sawyer can get Winter to eat – the crises come in swarms. Sawyer's absenteeism from school is discovered and it looks as though he's going to be banned from seeing Winter. Next, the dolphin's injured tail has to be amputated. Damage from a hurricane pushes the hospital into hopeless debt. And Sawyer's cousin comes home from the war, injured and depressed. Finally, it turns out that Winter's new way of swimming – twisting her body back and forth rather than waggling her tale up and down – may cause a spinal injury and death.
Too grim? Never worry. This is the kind of film where each setback proves a new opportunity for life lessons about friendship, family and resilience. Having stacked the deck against the animal, the script engineers a series of miracles, from aid offered by twinkling prosthetics specialist (Freeman), to Kyle's recovery and emergence as a community leader, to a handy visit by a Richard Branson-like tycoon.
Only the final documentary footage – of kids with disabilities visiting the aquarium to see the dolphin – rescues a genuine inspirational note to the film's conclusion. And the dolphin Winter, who plays herself, smiles gamely through it all.
- Directed by Charles Martin Smith
- Written by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi
- Starring Nathan Gamble, Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd
- Classification: G