An Inspiring 'Dolphin Tale'
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
A smart, sweet and even -- dare I say it? -- inspiring kid-engineered story of real-life courage and ingenuity, "Dolphin Tale" is also about as WYSIWYG a film as you'll see this year, provided you've seen the trailer, which has been pretty hard to avoid. That is, "Dolphin Tale" really is the finest dolphin-loses-its-tail-and-gets-a-prosthetic-one-that-helps-it-swim-properly-and-makes-said-dolphin-and-the-humans-around-her (for the dolphin in question is indeed a she)-much-much-happier movie that you're likely to see this, or any other, year.
One of the things that makes this movie special is that it really happened. Parts of it, anyway. What makes it more special still is that the baby dolphin to whom it happened, a smart and thoroughly charming creature named Winter, actually portrays herself in the film. I know -- freaky, right? The engaging sea mammal really and truly steals the picture in spite of being surrounded by such formidable old cinematic pros as Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson and something like God his own self, Morgan Freeman.
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The real story is simple: Young Winter got her tail caught in a crab trap. Wounded, she washed ashore in Florida and was rescued and taken in by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. After her tail was amputated, she began to swim again the only way she could, which, dorsal fin-less, was the wrong way, a way that could have ended in her paralysis. So a fusion of human and animal medicine led to a prosthetic tail, and the development of a gel that, it turns out, makes the sock for such prosthetic devices more comfortable for both animals and humans. Win, win and win, and possibly the subject for a great documentary. Indeed, actual footage of Winter's real-life rescue, recovery and rehabilitation is shown over this film's end credits.
For the fictional film, the producers and screenwriters felt obliged to add all number of complications and/or doorways to larger audience engagement. Note that the producers here were also responsible for the similarly fact-based crowd-pleaser "The Blind Side." So here we have a withdrawn young boy (Nathan Gamble) helping to rescue Winter and subsequently forming a bond with her, his opposite number being the cute female youngster (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) who's the daughter of the marine biologist who runs the hospital (Harry Connick Jr.), who's a single parent with a wise old dad (Kris Kristofferson). Fortunately, things don't get SO cute as to engineer a romance between Connick's character and the boy's beleaguered single mom (Ashley Judd), but don't think it didn't occur to the filmmakers. Gamble's Sawyer also has a swim-champ cousin who suffers an injury in the military, which of course, among other things, opens the door for the entry of the eccentric-but-brilliant prosthetics designer, who would be Freeman, of course. Oh, and did I mention that the marine hospital in the film is under eminent threat of being bought out and razed by a moneybags hotelier? Well, of course it is.
Grumps such as myself normally complain about fact-based films gussying up their narratives with unnecessary sentimentality-puffing filigree, not to mention cute montages of dolphin-human interplay scores to the Crew Cuts' "Sh-Boom," but the filmmakers here -- Charles Martin Smith directed, from a script by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi -- go about their Hollywoodizing not just with solid core competence, but with what appears to be genuine good-heartedness. (Not only that, they pay enough respect to the science that led to the miracle of Winter's new tail that the more curious kids in the audience may start paying more attention to certain parts of their school work.)
The veterans of the cast are also very clearly on board, and the child actors Gamble and Zuehlsdorff are terrifically engaging without ever getting cloying. Seriously, this is largely a what's-not-to-like proposition. Plus, there's a third-act turnaround involving a couple of aquarium visitors who've come a long way to see Winter, which, if it doesn't bring a tear or two to your eye, you might need a visit to the cardiologist to see what you've got in there in place of a heart. OK, maybe I'm exaggerating a bit, but still: "Dolphin Tale" works, and what it works at is hardly a bad thing.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.