This true story has been engineered for a fully inspirational -- if not over-the-top -- heartwarming family film.
The notion that behind every setback in life lies a potential rainbow is laid on a bit thick in Dolphin Tale, an appealing family film that doesn't know when to quit with the uplift. In telling the true story of a dolphin whose damaged tail is replaced by a prosthetic one (the actual dolphin it happened to plays herself), not a scene goes by that doesn't equate with some people's concern about what heaven could be like: The sheer goodness of it all might be too much to bear. This follow-up by Alcon Entertainment to its smash The Blind Side shares that film's focus on positive, well-purposed people doing the right thing and helping others. As such, it will likely be embraced by a portion of the same public, albeit with kids in tow.
Like many of the best animal films, this one is not so much about the critter as about the kids who love it. Dolphin Tale comes up aces in this department with Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a good-looking, freckled 11-year-old who's been in an unrelieved funk since his father took off; his mother, Lorraine (Ashley Judd), couldn't be nicer, but he is failing in school, has no friends and spends every second he can toying with stuff in his dad's abandoned workshop.
But his life changes when he discovers a beached dolphin near his Clearwater, Fla., home. Experts from the local marine hospital rescue it and take it in for treatment, but its tail has been badly damaged by a large crab trap. Sneaking into the inviting clinic/aquarium, Sawyer becomes obsessed by the fate of the dolphin, named Winter, which seems to respond especially well to the boy's attentions.
Sawyer is quickly embraced by the hospital's staff, led by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), whose cloyingly rambunctious daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), is not only roughly Sawyer's age but doesn't have a mom. Also on board, literally, is Kris Kristofferson as Clay's old salt dad. Aside from some overdone comic relief involving a cackling pelican, this early stretch is the best in the film, as it sensitively depicts a withdrawn boy's emergence from his shell; Sawyer awakens to life, his own potential and another being's survival. It's a process Gamble's talents make palpable and intermittently touching.
Winter is left with a stumpy rear after her tail is amputated, and the doctor insists she needs a prosthetic addition. A genial, can't-say-no doctor at the nearby V.A. hospital (Morgan Freeman) obligingly signs on to design one, but Winter rejects the initial prototype.
As agreeably made as it is by director Charles Martin Smith, who spent a lot of screen time with animals in Carroll Ballard's Never Cry Wolf and was behind the camera on the dog-centric Air Bud, the film doesn't know when to quit. When it looks as though the Clearwater Marine Hospital is doomed, at the snap of a finger those concerned are able to generate TV coverage and stage a huge aquatic benefit to try to save the day. A billionaire real estate developer turns out to have the soul of Santa Claus. Winter gets a new tail supported by a newly invented sleeve.
The opening CGI shots of dolphins swimming in the ocean create fears of undue fakery that fortunately prove unfounded. The film will be released in 2D and 3D versions, with the former caught for review.
Release date Sept. 23 (Warner Bros.)
Cast Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Kris Kristofferson, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Morgan Freeman
Director Charles Martin Smith
Screenwriters Karen Janszen, Noam Dromi
Producers Andrew A. Kosove, Broderick Johnson, Richard Ingber
Rated PG, 113 minutes