“From the studios and producers of The Blind Side.” That’s how Dolphin Tale is being marketed. This may strike you as a tenuous aesthetic connection, but it’s savvy advertising—Dolphin Tale, loosely based on true events, is another story of a wounded foundling becoming a star.
The young dolphin in question is injured when she runs afoul of a crab trap. She’s rescued and taken in by Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, and her damaged tail is amputated soon after. Given the name Winter, the creature learns to swim by moving her rear stump left-right instead of up-down, and it turns out that this technique endangers her life by improperly building up the muscles around her spine.
How Winter got her groove back is, in a highly fictionalized form, the subject of Dolphin Tale. In the movie’s account, a lonely fatherless boy, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), ditches summer school to hang out at the Aquarium with Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), daughter of the widowed Dr. Haskell (Harry Connick, Jr.) the Vet in charge of Winter’s case. When Sawyer’s Mom (Ashley Judd) finds out about the ditching, she’s furious at first, but the charm of the aquarium and her son’s passion for his newfound interest breaks her down.
There’s talk of putting both Winter and the cash-strapped aquarium to sleep. But while visiting his war-wounded cousin at a Vet’s hospital, Sawyer meets Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), a designer of prosthetic limbs, and somehow talks him into attempting to craft a new stern for Winter. Getting the mammal (who Dr. McCarthy persists in referring to as a “fish”) to accept the uncomfortable appliance is a struggle.
Directed by character actor Charles Martin Smith, Dolphin Tale is a brightly-colored, slick piece of moviemaking, with corny humor and carefully engineered moments of uplift. The cast is big-name and talented—along with Judd, Freeman and Connick are Kris Kristofferson, Frances Sternhagen, Ray McKinnon and even Richard Libertini in a bit—but overall, the actors seem to be on autopilot. Freeman has a line or two that seems meant to suggest that the Doc is an eccentric curmudgeon, but you’d never know it from the performance. He just smiles amiably and cruises on through. He’s always pleasant company, but this isn’t a rich character.
It’s a shame that the filmmakers didn’t try to dramatize, beyond the most general terms, the technical challenges of the tail-making project—Apollo 13 showed that such details can be absorbing. But the thing is, Dolphin Tale is about the attempt to build an amputee dolphin a working tail. If you can’t invest emotionally in a quixotic effort like that, regardless of the movie’s gravitas, you’re tougher than me.