Like the injured sea mammal at the center of it, “Dolphin Tale” is friendly, lighthearted, and not too graceful. It floats along amiably without any sense of urgency or purpose (or should I say porpoise??) (I should not). Also like a dolphin, the movie is sure to be beloved by kids and smiled at by adults, even though it isn’t really doing anything.
Here’s a movie so earnest and unassuming that it’s hard to work up the motivation to be snarky about it. It’s based on a true story about a real dolphin that really did get fitted with a prosthetic tail after being injured. They got the actual dolphin to “play” herself in the movie, for crying out loud! How can you resist that? No one can.
We meet the dolphin through an 11-year-old boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), who’s bicycling past the Florida seashore one summer day when a fisherman calls him over. A dolphin is lying on the beach, tangled in a net, its tail bleeding. Sawyer gently untangles it and waits while the folks from the local marine animal hospital arrive. He later visits the poor creature, now named Winter, in rehab, and notices that she has an affinity for him. Sawyer, who has slacked off in school and doesn’t seem to have any friends, is suddenly passionate about something. He wants to help Winter!
Well, golly! Put a cute kid and a wounded animal in a movie together and the rest pretty much takes care of itself. Sawyer’s mom (Ashley Judd) supports his newfound interest in marine biology, as does the kindly dolphin doctor (Harry Connick Jr.), whose daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), is Sawyer’s age. Everyone is sad when Winter’s damaged tail must be amputated, but then Sawyer gets the idea for the prosthetic tail after meeting a doctor who designs fake limbs for injured war veterans. The doctor is played by Morgan Freeman, so there’s that. Cute kid, wounded dolphin, injured soldiers, Morgan Freeman? Well played, movie. Those are almost all the buttons. But I feel like there’s one you haven’t pressed…
Aha! The animal facility is running out of money, and the board of trustees might be forced to shut it down and sell it to land developers. Can Sawyer and Winter and Morgan Freeman and Harry Connick Jr. save the day?? I will not reveal the surprise ending!
Even for a kids-and-animals movie, this one is pretty uncomplicated, with dialogue (by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi) designed for easy digestion. Someone tells Dr. Harry Connick Jr. that there’s no way Winter can be saved. “Every aquarium in the country says it’s hopeless,” she says. Dr. Harry Connick Jr.’s reply: “Then they haven’t met Winter.” A cherubic little girl who’s missing a leg herself comes to see Winter and is profoundly inspired. “Mommy, she’s just like me,” she says, in case we missed the point. I suppose there are standards under which such writing would be considered “bad,” but who would be surly enough to say so?
“Dolphin Tale” was directed by Charles Martin Smith, a character actor whose most famous work as a director was “Air Bud.” This movie’s more fact-based than that one, but you get the idea.
Note: For some reason Kris Kristofferson is in the movie for a few minutes as Dr. Harry Connick Jr.’s father. He’s the PG version of Nick Nolte.
B- (1 hr., 53 min.; )