'Dolphin Tale 2' Premiere: Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd Share Inspiring (and Funny) Stories of Working With Sea Creatures

Associated Press
Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr.

The stars hit the blue carpet Sunday for the sequel's world premiere

The blue carpet was rolled out in Westwood on Sunday morning for the premiere of Dolphin Tale 2, which continues the story of Winter, a dolphin who nearly died after losing her tail to infection but was saved thanks to the invention of a groundbreaking prosthetic tail.

Stars Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Kris Kristofferson were among those who turned out on a hot California day to celebrate the sequel, which finds the Clearwater Marine Aquarium staffers under pressure to find a female companion for Winter (who plays herself in the movie) or be forced to relocate her. Enter Hope, another rescued dolphin (who also plays herself).

Judd said she believes the movie, like the original, carries inspiring messages for both kids and parents.

"I think part of why the Dolphin Tale movies are so special is they can be both very specific as well as universal," Judd told THR. "There's a message for me in there that we hurt wild animals through our selfishness and our foolishness, but also through our compassion and ingenuity we can help rehabilitate them and return them to their native habitats."

Added producer Richard Ingber: "Winter is a real inspiration for people who may want to give up hope, who need that little push to get over whatever is bothering them, whatever little hump they need to get over. When they see that Winter did it, it makes it easy for them, and it's very relatable and naturally very inspiring."

For his part, writer-director Charles Martin Smith said there was no shortage of material for the sequel.

"There is so much that goes on at the aquarium there, with the other rescue work and the dolphins and the turtles. I thought there were so may other stories we could tell in addition to Winter's original story. We got a lot more in here, including an emphasis on [the aquarium's] main mission, which is to rehabilitate these animals and turn them free."

Enough stories for a third movie? "That's bad luck," he replied, laughing. "Never talk about a third movie when the second one isn't out yet."

Several years have passed since young Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) and the CMA team rescued Winter. Gamble said his character has grown up quite a bit since moviegoers first met the 9-year-old boy of the first pic, but he is still struggling with finding his way in the world.

"Sawyer is going though a lot that I am going through, and what a lot of teenagers are going through, and that's realizing you have to be mature now. You're taking your first steps toward being an adult and making adult decisions you aren't used to," he said.

For the cast, getting to work alongside Winter and her fellow dolphins again was a memorable experience.

"It's an amazing thing because you get to spend so much time around these incredible creatures, and I think even more than normal dolphins, these animals are pretty extraordinary since they've had so much human contact because of their injuries," Connick said. "It's a different sort of feeling being around them than if you have a chance to be around other dolphins in a different context."

Added Kristofferson: "I think the great thing about the movies is the study of the dolphin. Dolphins are incredible animals, and that smile on their face means something to me. It's permanent."

Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who plays Hazel, said she's ready to visit with the dolphins again: "I wish I could get back in the pool with them right now!" She added that each has his or her own unique personality: "Winter is a lot more gentle and just kind, and Hope is the crazy, fun-loving kid."

Austin Highsmith, who plays dolphin trainer Phoebe, notes that when acting opposite dolphins, "they're gonna win the scene every time, so you abandon that at the very beginning." She was impressed that both Winter and Hope memorized seven minutes of choreography. "I know humans who can't do that," she said.

But that's not to say that things were serious on set; the dolphins got pretty playful at times.

Case in point, one of Judd's most memorable moments was "Winter farting. … Winter when she wants attention but she's not getting attention, she's very coy. And when people start paying attention to her, she starts doing fart noises through her blowhole. She's precious."

Highsmith shared another funny moment involving the animals. When she was meeting co-star Morgan Freeman, "Winter decided to pee on me when we shook hands. I think I'm singular in that experience."

Indeed, the cast and crew had to cater to the dolphins' moods and whims, said producer Ingber.

"We had a rule that the dolphins come first," he said. "Whatever the dolphins want to do, if they are not in the mood, then we'll go shoot something else. And the truth is, Winter is a ham and loves the camera and interacting with people, so it's not hard to get her involved in a movie at all."

Also at the premiere was hit songwriter Diane Warren, an animal activist, who wrote the song "You Got Me" for the movie, which was recorded by Gavin DeGraw. She said she was inspired by a montage of film footage but wanted the song to be universal.

"I wanted the song to live outside that movie as well," she said. " 'You Got Me' — it could be friends to friends, parents to kids, kids to parents or someone to their cat. I sing it to my cat," she quipped.

Dolphin Tale 2 opens Sept. 12 via Warner Bros. Pictures and Alcon Entertainment.