Dolphin Tale rather surprisingly sniped the #1 spot at the U.S. box office in its second weekend of release, thereby obliging me to watch and review it, I decided that I was going to be good about it, and even though it was a fait accompli that I, personally, would not enjoy the experience on any level, I could still acknowledge that for many people, this film has clearly hit some kind of a chord, and there's no value in my being a snob about it, and why not go ahead and admit that it is an eminently fine version of what it is.
Done and done. Dolphin Tale is an eminently fine inspiring true-ish story of beating the odds and being the best you you can be, and if that's your poison, great. It is not, so far as I can tell, a particularly exceptional version of the form except in that the real-life dolphin at the center of it all is playing herself, though I think the phrase "a dolphin playing herself" raises theoretical issues far more interesting than the movie itself and a goodly bit beyond the purview of this essay.
The film's two protagonists are Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), a sad little boy who is totally divorced from everything around him, and Winter (herself), a bottlenose dolphin who is playing and larking about, when she gets tangled in a crab trap and washes up on the beach. It is on that beach that the two of them meet, and the boy immediately sets to removing the ropes holding the cetacean. She is rescued by the team at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, though in her critical state she eventually loses a tail, and is ready to give up life itself until Sawyer starts visiting regularly and for the first time in his life finds something worth believing in and fighting for.
Let's put things on hold for just a second: this is a true story insofar as Winter the dolphin did in fact lose a tail, and does in fact reside in the Clearwater Marine Aquarium of Clearwater, FL, and was in fact given a prosthetic tail to replace the one she lost. She did not have the aid of a plucky kid with a dad who skipped out on him and a beloved cousin who was terribly wounded in overseas combat. I find this rankling. Isn't the story of a noble, beautiful animal that regains the ability to swim and live through the concerted efforts of volunteers and scientists sufficiently heartwarming, without having to tack on a phenomenally trite story of a little boy being all sad and then happy? Apparently not. I will confess to being shocked and extremely happy that Sawyer's divorced mom (Ashely Judd) and the fatherly widower cetologist, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), aren't even made to pay lip service to the idea of a love story; other than that, there is not a hint of originality or insight in Karn Janszen and Noam Dromi's script.
Back on the plot: Sawyer's cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) comes back from the wars with all his limbs in place, but without the ability to use them properly; and in visiting the deeply resentful young man, Sawyer happens to meet Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman in the wildly uncharacteristic role of a soft-spoken, kindly black man who helps the white protagonist to victory), a prosthetic specialist; and a little dolphin tail-shaped lightbulb goes off over Sawyer's head, and he sweet-talks the doctor into helping get Winter back on her feet, so to speak, in time for the big fundraiser he's throwing with Dr. Clay's precocious home-schooled* daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff, whose supergoddamn enthusiastic performance reminds me of all the reasons I don't like kids) to save Clearwater Marine Aquarium from a hotel developer. Because of course there's a hotel developer.
But like I said, I wanted to try to be as nice to the movie as I can, and I will admit of my own free will that even though there's nothing that is remotely distinguished about Dolphin Tale, excepting that it is probably the first time in history that a dolphin has been the main character of a film, there's certainly nothing bad about it. It's hard to get behind some of the choices made by director Charles Martin Smith (whose animal movie bona fides were proven with Air Bud, though it's a dead certainty he's best known for playing Terry "The Toad" in American Graffiti), particularly the monumentally dull-eyed use of "Sh-Boom" to score a "how much fun we have taking care of marine animals!" montage, and the desperate, bland ways he occasionally tosses objects at the camera lens to take advantage of the film's rather pointless 3-D conversion. But he keeps the story moving steadily - a decent enough feat, given how many stops and starts that story has (McCarthy doesn't even appear until the midway point) - and drags one heckuva good performance out of Gamble, who manages to give the best performance in the whole movie (not a huge achievement: Freeman is in strict check-cashing mode, and Judd and Connick aren't exactly powerhouse actors).
So, yeah, if you want to see a movie that will challenge you in absolutely no manner whatsoever, without any memorable dialogue or sharply-drawn characters or significant amount of catharsis... in short, a Nice Movie for Children and Parents to Enjoy, then yes, Dolphin Tale will do that. It is not mine to tell you that you should want to do it, and I'll openly admit that I can't understand why. But it's exactly what it says on the label, and being as it is not a whisper worse than it needs to be, that is a legitimate sort of accomplishment.
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