Harry Connick Jr. as Dr. Clay Haskett
Ashley Judd as Lorraine Nelson
Kris Kristofferson as Reed Haskett
Nathan Gamble as Sawyer Nelson
Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Hazel Haskett
Austin Stowell as Kyle
Morgan Freeman as Dr. McCarthy
Directed by Charles Martin Smith
The interesting true story of saving an injured dolphin makes "Dolphin Tale" a film the whole family can enjoy. Kids can enjoy the fun and educational aspects of it while adults can enjoy the great cast featuring Freeman, Judd, and Connick.
"Dolphin Tale" is inspired by a true story.
Sawyer Nelson is a troubled young 11 year old. His father has abandoned their family, the older cousin who he idolizes is going into the army, he's picked on by bullies, he's failing miserably at school, and he's stuck in summer school. It's no wonder he's shy and withdrawn.
But everything changes when he finds a dolphin stranded on a Florida beach with a rope wrapped around its tail. Sawyer bonds with the dolphin and follows the rescue team, led by Dr. Clay Haskett, who picks it up. Sawyer and Haskett's young daughter Hazel soon name the dolphin "Winter" and personally get involved with the dolphin's rehabilitation. But when it becomes necessary to amputate the dolphin's tail to save its life, the question of its long term survival becomes unknown. How does a dolphin without a tail survive?
"Dolphin Tale" is rated PG for some mild thematic elements.
As a family film, "Dolphin Tale" works pretty well. Kids love it and the adults I watched it with were pretty engaged, too. I think you can attribute several things to its successful formula.
First of all, it's educational. Kids learn about dolphins, their sounds, their behaviors, etc. They also learn about how the animals can get entangled in nets, get hit by boats, and other dangers. That then leads to the next stage – veterinary medicine. They discuss damage to the dolphin's spine, their care and feeding, their rehabilitation, and even the touchy subject of euthanasia. Any kid interested in being a vet should really be into this. Then the movie enters into another realm and that's engineering. With the help of Morgan Freeman as Dr. McCarthy, the kids identify the problem, design a solution, build a prosthetic, then have to go through several iterations of trial and error before actually finding something that works. I can see all sorts of elementary school teachers using this movie as a talking point for lessons, and it's all presented in a fun way that doesn't actually feel like the dreaded 'learning'.
Second, the movie is emotional. Any parent with a shy child is going to identify with Nathan Gamble as Sawyer Nelson and especially with Ashley Judd as his mother Lorraine. When her son finally lights up and is engaged by this world of marine science, it's very easy to understand why she would encourage it. But there are a lot of other sub-plots going on as well. You have Austin Stowell as Kyle being nearly killed by a bomb and having to re-learn to walk. He has to come to terms with the fact that his world has changed and his family has to help him through that. You have the subplot of Hazel having lost her mom and Sawyer having been abandoned by his father. Then you have Harry Connick Jr. as Dr. Clay Haskett having to balance his love for animals with the realities of running a non-profit business. There's a heck of a lot going on in this movie. It's almost too much. But anybody watching it is probably going to find some character they identify with, whether human or dolphin, and then root for them until the credits roll.
Another big factor in this movie's success is its stellar cast. Morgan Freeman plays yet another engineering wizard as Dr. McCarthy. Freeman brings a lot of legitimacy to what might otherwise be written off as kiddie fare. He also provides a lot of comic relief with his no-nonsense dialogue and exclamations of "Stupid fish!" Freeman makes engineering look fun. Then you have Harry Connick Jr. as Dr. Clay Haskett. In so many of the kid's shows on TV today, the parents are flat out idiots. The kids are portrayed as the intelligent and sane ones while the parents are simply morons to be mocked. It's a refreshing change to see an adult portrayed as someone smart, cool, competent, and trustworthy. Ashley Judd doesn't get as much screentime as I'd like as Lorraine Nelson, but she makes the most of the little time she has. She also has a pretty comedic scene involving a pesky pelican. I'm not sure how much she was acting in the scene while freaking out, but it made everyone laugh. But despite the big name adult actors, the movie really sinks or swims (pun intended) on the performances of the two child actors. Nathan Gamble as Sawyer Nelson and Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Hazel Haskett carry the movie well. They portray the pre-teen spirit in a good way. They still have childlike enthusiasm and feelings yet they're mature enough to understand adult issues. So whether Sawyer is playing with a dolphin or seeing his wounded cousin return from Iraq, he reacts in a believable way.
One interesting side note – "Dolphin Tale" is directed by Charles Martin Smith who you may remember as an actor from "American Graffitti," "Never Cry Wolf," and "The Untouchables." It's nice to see him working behind the camera now.
"Dolphin Tale" is being presented in 3D. In the opening scenes where we see young Winter swimming through the ocean and frolicking among coral reefs, it's quite a sight. The 3D there is pretty effective and I can't recall any other movie following CG dolphins from their view as they swim around. It was definitely well crafted. In the rest of the movie, though, you pretty much forget you're watching a 3D presentation. It doesn't being anything to the presentation. So the 3D is a bit of a mixed bag, but when it works it works well.
What Didn't Work:
"Dolphin Tale" is somewhat based in reality which is one of the appeals of the film. The most interesting parts of it actually happened – Winter is a real dolphin that lost her tail, they really created a prosthetic tail for her, and amputees and other people with disabilities were really inspired by this creature. But where the movie falls apart is where it departs from reality. There's an absurd scene where the kids fly a remote controlled helicopter around the aquarium and it goes out of control. It zips in and out of windows on its own as the animals comically gawk at it. It was exceptionally cheesy and didn't fit with the rest of the movie. The big final scene is also extremely hokey and ends the movie on a somewhat silly note. I think they could have done something less "Hollywood" and more emotional. Speaking of reality, there is some pretty bad CG animation in a couple of spots. Thank goodness they used a real dolphin for most of the film.
"Dolphin Tale," outside of the true story, features a lot of tropes that have been done to death. We've seen a million movies where a boy bonds with an animal and they all pretty much play out the same. We've seen a million movies where a businessman wants to shut down some benevolent business and the kids have to rally and raise money to save it. Combine those familiar storylines with the fact that you know how it's going to end even before it begins and you have a pretty predictable film. Fortunately the interesting story behind getting the dolphin a tail is enough to engage you and make you forget you know exactly how it's going to play out.
And while I praised the movie earlier for being emotional, even I can recognize the manufactured Hollywood attempt to generate emotion. Fatherless boy? Check. Bullies at school? Check. Disabled vet? Check. Hurt animals? Check. It's like the writers threw everything including the kitchen sink into this in an attempt to cover their bases and tug at the heartstrings. This is somewhat forgivable, but more cynical viewers could easily turn on this movie for its blatant attempt at manufactured emotion.
The Bottom Line:
Kids and dolphin lovers should enjoy "Dolphin Tale." If you're looking for an entertaining family film with a good message, it will fit the bill.