Charles Martin Smith’s “Dolphin Tale” is a perfectly pleasant animal fable. All the actors give humble performances, usually keeping a big smile indented on their faces. There aren’t any surprises, and you don’t have to worry about the animal dying.
It’s inspired by a true story, and I stress “inspired” because the movie’s writers (Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi) and the producers use the typical animal movie device by throwing young children into the equation. “Dolphin Tale” is a story of a young boy’s bond with a dolphin. So there are a lot of cutesy dolphin interactions, and a couple majestic sequences of the boy swimming and playing with the dolphin in bliss. Again all of this is pleasant stuff to watch, and the children actors do what they’re expected to do in a movie like this and are helped out considerably by the grown up cast.
And you’d have to be a sad, sad person not to enjoy watching a dolphin playing. Like all of the creatures in these kinds of movies--whether it’s a dog, horse, dolphin, or cute alien--you can’t help but be touched. In the case of “Dolphin Tale” it does help to have the actual dolphin, Winter (a female Bottle Nose dolphin that got caught in a fishing trap, had to have its tale amputated, and was given a prosthetic one), because you feel a little more emotionally attached to the creature.
Nathan Gamble plays Sawyer, the young boy who finds and befriends Winter and has the magic touch. Whenever he’s in the same room as her she makes a cute tweeting sound; when the other people at the animal shelter can’t feed her, Sawyer can.
While at the shelter he befriends fellow youngster Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) along with her father and owner Clay (Harry Connick Jr.) Together they try to rehabilitate Winter and get her a prosthetic tale, even though the odds are impossible. Anyway you know where this is going.
Now, I’m fine with all that emotional stuff, and I’m sure other people will be too. Unfortunately “Dolphin Tale” just isn’t emotional enough. I’m not saying the dolphin needed to die but at least amp up the sadness and intensity in certain key scenes, like when Winter is first rescued on the beach, or later on when there’s the possibility that she might have to be put down.
We don’t really get to see Winter’s struggles to their full extent. Therefore we don’t care about Winter as much as we would like to, mostly because the movie takes it for granted that everybody cares about dolphins. And while 3D does sound like a good idea for an animal movie it seemed to create a layer of gloss over the screen, further keeping you at a distance from the movie.
Also, by about the middle it becomes a little much. Smith piles on the sentimentality with a shovel. Obvious gimmicks, like when a young girl with a missing leg comes all the way up from Georgia to see Winter or when Clay wants to give up and his father, Reed (Kris Kristofferson) gives a perseverance speech, using some metaphor about the stars, or whatever.
Not to mention a few tacked on cliché side plots to tug at your heart strings and amp up the conflict, such as Sawyer’s cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), a soldier who’s injured and is unable to use one of his legs, only to be inspired by Winter’s charm. And why oh why does the villain in these stories always have to be a greedy businessman (in this case it’s a man who owns a chain of hotels and wants to buy up the shelter)? Haven’t we seen that enough?
With that said, it’s still hard to dislike “Dolphin Tale” completely. It’s a painless, upbeat family film. In fact it’s so happy and afraid to be down that’s it’s almost overwhelming. The film will make you feel good, even if that feeling is somewhat corny and Hallmark. For most that’s good enough.