Starring: Nathan Gamble, Harry Connick, Jr., Cozi Zuehlsdorff
Directed by: Charles Martin Smith (“Air Bud”)
Written by: Karen Janszen (“Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home”) and Noam Dromi (debut)
Suspected to be among the planet’s most intelligent animals, dolphins offer humans the opportunity to interact with what is essentially a wild animal that can actually understand us. While we don’t share a language or opposable thumbs, things like the concept of compassion seem to be a common trait. That notion is at the center of “Dolphin Tale,” loosely based on the true story of Winter, a bottlenose dolphin found trapped in a crab net off the coast of Florida. The ordeal results in an injury to her tail so severe that amputation was the only option.
After rehabilitation at a local aquarium, Winter is fitted with a custom-made prosthetic tail, enabling her to swim in proper dolphin fashion once again. While the bones of that story remain in place, the movie piles on the fiction in an effort to craft a family-friendly inspirational film.
The movie’s story centers on an introverted 11-year-old named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a lonely boy who retreats into gadgets and Game Boys instead of making friends or taking part in his cousin’s send off to the military. A bike ride to summer school results in the discovery of a beached dolphin. Sawyer cuts her free before a team from a local aquarium, led by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.) and his young daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), arrives to whisk the injured cetacean away for emergency care. His curiosity piqued, Sawyer sneaks into the aquarium to check on the dolphin, now christened “Winter” by Hazel. Initially turned away by Dr. Haskett, Sawyer is ultimately allowed to stay after Winter seems to react positively to his presence.
The first half of the film makes for decent if typical family film fodder, even if it features a mugging pelican you’ll want to punch in the beak. But then you realize you’re almost an hour into a movie you’re supposed to see with restless children and you haven’t met Morgan Freeman’s character yet or seen a single prosthetic tail. Yikes.
The second half of the movie slows to a crawl, stretching the story and the audience’s patience with a hurricane, a combat injury, and a lengthy series of artificial fluke beta-testing sessions. Like the similarly-themed “Soul Surfer,” the movie takes an intriguing real-life story of inspiration and smothers it in schmaltz.