Nearly drowning in Hollywood sap
By Sean O'Connell
Friday, Sep 23, 2011
Chances are, you've heard this "Dolphin Tale" before. Winter, the artificially enhanced mammal at the heart of Charles Martin Smith's new family drama, has been profiled on CNN, NBC's "The Today Show" and in countless newspapers across the country. She might be the only dolphin in the world with her own Web site (www.seewinter.com), Facebook page and Twitter account.
But even if you're among those who wouldn't know Winter from Flipper, you should have no trouble plugging into the film's relaxed and enjoyably unhurried pace because Smith has delivered such a heartwarmingly hokey and accessible production.
And parents, don't be surprised if your youngest ones are inspired by "Tale" to conduct additional research into this remarkable dolphin's triumphant story of perseverance.
It's a whale of a tale, made more special by being predominantly true. Winter the dolphin was 3 months old when crab nets entangled her off the shores of Florida's Gulf coastline. Marine biologists at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium rescued Winter and nursed her back to health in their facility, but not before they had to surgically remove her badly damaged tail. The operation that saved Winter's life actually created fresh problems. As the dolphin developed irregular swim patterns to compensate for the lost tail, she risked permanently destroying her spine and internal organs. Something had to be done. A documentary detailing Winter's miraculous medical journey might have stripped away the Disney-fied fluff that clings to Smith's "Dolphin Tale" like barnacles on the belly of a whale. (It's worth noting that Warner Bros., not Disney, is behind the feature, yet that studio still borrows plenty of manipulative tricks from the Mouse House's time-tested playbook.)
By running Winter's unique biography through the conventional Hollywood filter, Smith reduces "Dolphin Tale" to "Old Yeller" with a blowhole. As predictable as the tides, it adheres firmly to the age-old kid-and-their-pet template, tapping sentimental beats as it mixes in cheesy comic relief (a clumsy toy helicopter sequence; the presence of a pesky pelican named Rufus) to entertain kids in the theater.
With Hollywood gloss comes Hollywood star power. Instead of narrating the story - which is what he would have done had "Dolphin Tale" actually been a documentary - Morgan Freeman appears on screen as Dr. McCarthy, an engineer of prosthetic limbs who assists spunky young kids Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) by custom-designing an artificial tail for Winter. Ashley Judd swells with the proper amount of parental pride at her son Sawyer's newfound interest in marine life. Harry Connick Jr. convincingly portrays Hazel's father, Clay, the biologist in charge of Winter's treatment. Everyone involved buys into the film's underlying message of "family is forever," as well as the third-act connection established between Winter and Kyle (Austin Stowell), a wounded military veteran coping with an artificial leg who found inspiration in the dolphin's struggle.
The real star, of course, is Winter, who plays herself and rightfully steals every scene. I might disagree with some of Smith's choices in telling Winter's story (the 3-D, for example, is unnecessary), but I completely understand his desire to share Winter's accomplishments.
If you see "Dolphin Tale," stay through the end credits, where the director attaches news footage and home movies capturing this remarkable creature as she interacts with young children, test drives her new tail and poses for photos with military veterans who sport similar limbs made from artificial materials. The clips are brief but the emotions are genuine, reminding us that the sequel to this uplifting story continues every day on Facebook, Twitter and Winter's own Web page. Log in and follow along.
Contains some mild thematic elements.