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Movie Review: ‘Dolphin Tale’

September 23, 2011
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If looking for the definition of the terms “feel-good” or “heart of gold,” then look no further. Dolphin Tale, directed by Charles Martin Smith, is equal parts sugar, wholesome goodness, and predictability. The film could easily be brushed aside as cliché, which honestly it is, but it is also endearing and so likeable that its obviousness is easy to forgive.

The story is a simple one and if nothing else, the title cannot be accused of being misleading. It is of a dolphin who after losing her injured tail, with the help of a boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), gets a prosthetic one. I feel confident that the cheesy word play in the title (tale/tail) was intentional, and while it is hard for me to say it without smirking, it is a good indication towards the simplistic, yet lovable nature of the film.

The plot revolves around Sawyer, a boy who, cripplingly shy, spends his summer, not playing with friends, but instead hiding in the garage making model helicopters. He is struggling in school, his father is no longer present and his mom, played by Ashley Judd, seems to have given up hope in finding a way to engage him in life. Basically, the kid has issues. Not in the, “I’m going to start making bombs instead of helicopters in the basement” kind of way, but more the, “I have to go to summer school and I’m not happy about it” variety. I guess one could say that he has PG rated problems, which luckily can all be solved by befriending a dolphin.

This dolphin is Winter. She is found by Sawyer beached with a critically injured tail. Through the rescue, camaraderie is formed between the pair and Sawyer takes it upon himself to assist in nursing her back to health.  Through caring for Winter and working with the crew (including replacement father figure Harry Connick, Jr) at Winter’s new home, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Sawyer moves closer and closer to well-adjusted.

As he acquires a fresh enthusiasm about life, Winter regains much of her health. However, not without a price: she loses the entirety of her tail and the remainder of the plot involves finding a way to get her a replacement. This is where Morgan Freeman gleefully shows up. His role is of the prosthetics specialist who makes the artificial tail that ultimately saves Winter’s life. He basically plays an extension of his much-loved persona: intimidating at first, but nothing more than an amiable, yet quirky and wise old man. He may be the first scientist to ever refer to a dolphin as a “stupid fish,” but as usual he makes it work.

There are a variety of subplots involved, including an injured war veteran, a hurricane, and a business near closing due to the recession. All of these are overshadowed by Winter and her perseverance to survive. Based on a true story, the film stars the real dolphin, Winter and while I cannot fathom most factors of the film being based on actuality, the dolphin’s story is real. Her presence brings a validity to the family film that otherwise would not have existed.

That being said, I do recognize that it is not a perfect film. Yes, it follows a predictable plot, but its predominant demographic will be for those ten and under and I highly doubt they will mind. As for the adults, it may not be the year’s most exhilarating film, but it is well-polished, entertaining and about as uplifting as a movie can get. It is filled with overt sentimentalities, but regardless, it won me over. The audience that goes to see this will know, from the trailer, what they are getting into and I highly doubt they will be anything but pleased.

My 6 year-old nephew escorted me to the film and at its conclusion I inquired for his thoughts. His responded, “I really liked the dolphin and I’m just glad she got a new tail” and, you know, I was too.

Side note: the film can be seen in 3-D, but excluding the opening credits and a completely unnecessary scene involving a crazy, runaway helicopter there appeared to be no purpose. Save a couple dollars by watching it in 2-D. You can spend that extra money on some salty popcorn to offset the sweetness that you are about to endure.

Rating: 3/5

Dolphin Tale is rated PG for some mild thematic elements. Directed by Charles Martin Smith. Starring Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Kris Kristofferson, Cozi Zuehlsdorff and Morgan Freeman.

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