Dolphin Tale

Dolphin Tale

"Mr. DeMille, I'm ready for my close-up"

(2011) Family (Warner Brothers) Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Austin Stowell, Frances Sternhagen, Austin Highsmith, Michael Roark, Richard Libertini, Tom Nowicki. Directed by Charles Martin Smith

“Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re broken” says one wise character in this movie and that has a real ring of truth to it. There was a time when having a disability meant you were limited, but in this day and age of technological marvels that’s no longer the case. As a disabled person myself, I can tell you first hand that you’re only as broken as you allow yourself to be.

Sawyer (Gamble) is a kid from a broken home; his dad left ages ago and has disappeared off the face of the Earth as far as Sawyer and his plucky single mom (Judd) is concerned. Sawyer is socially awkward and a bit of a loner and things are going from bad to worse; his cousin Kyle (Stowell), a swimming champion at Clearwater High, is joining the Army and going off to the Middle East. Sawyer is bummed; he idolized his cousin and had expected he would try out for the Olympic Team but Kyle knows he needs money to train for that and a stint in the Army would give him that.

On his way to summer school (Sawyer, in addition to not fitting in with his peers is failing at school) Sawyer is flagged down by a surf fisherman (Libertini)  who has found a dolphin washed to shore. The dolphin is tangled up in the lines of a crab trap. Sawyer calls 911 on his cell phone and races down to the surf to cut the animal free from its bonds.

Concerned vets from the local Clearwater Marine Hospital led by dashing Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick) and his plucky daughter Hazel (Zuehlsdorff – there is no shortage of plucky in family films) come and rescue the dolphin. Sawyer becomes intrigued by the dolphin and goes to the Marine Hospital where he meets Hazel again and the plucky pelican Roofus (because he lives on the roof). Dr. Haskett is about to shoo Sawyer away but he notices that the gravely injured Winter responds to the boy’s presence and allows him to stay as kind of a junior volunteer.

This serves to energize Sawyer and give him a purpose he’s never had before. However, Winter’s injuries are too severe and her tail has to be amputated. Winter learns how to swim using an entirely different tail motion but this is creating extreme stress on her spinal column that might just kill her if something isn’t done.

On top of that cousin Kyle has returned from war badly injured and unable to walk properly, his dream of Olympic gold silenced forever. He has entered a deep depression and is staying at the local VA Hospital where a concerned prosthetist named Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Freeman) is fitting Kyle for a new leg. Sawyer realizes that a prosthesis might be the key to Winter’s survival and despite feeling sad at Kyle’s despondency  has the presence of mind to seek out Dr. McCarthy to help with his friend.

The initial attempts to get Winter to accept her new prosthetic tail are a disaster as Winter rejects each one. To top it all off, the Marine Hospital is in severe financial difficulties and a real estate mogul (Nowicki) has put in an offer the board (led by the redoubtable Sternhagen) of the Hospital can’t refuse, one which would involve tearing down the facility, moving the animals elsewhere and putting up a new hotel. Things are looking as ominous as the sky before a hurricane – which is about to strike.

Smith, best known as an actor in such classics as American Graffiti and Starman has directed such family fare as the forgettable Air Bud, hits a home run here. A lot of family films are a bit too sweet, like lemonade with too much sugar in it. You feel like gagging when you’re leaving the theater.

Not so here. Yes, there’s charm in a Free Willy kind of way but there are also some underlying messages about not giving up whatever the obstacle, and looking at those with disabilities in a different light.

This is based on a true story and it’s true in that there is a dolphin named Winter that was fitted for a prosthetic tail and acts as inspiration to the disabled everywhere. However, most of what you see here is fiction and Hollywoodized for family viewing. There are no kids in the real Winter’s story and teams of doctors instead of one prosthetist.

Gamble does a pretty good job as Sawyer but I’m still wrestling with whether his character was needed in the movie at all. From a marketing standpoint, very much so – the kids need someone to identify with if you’re going to get them to see the movie. However, from a story standpoint no. There is no way on Earth any sort of reputable marine vet would let a kid anywhere near a dolphin this badly injured.

Be that as it may, the movie is satisfying on several levels. The acting is pretty solid throughout, with Freeman as the idiosyncratic curmudgeon prosthetist and Kristofferson as Dr. Haskett’s salty dad. Judd is the lone exception; she seems a bit uncomfortable in her very brief role. Best of all is Winter, who plays herself. Watching her in action is astonishing, and the CGI versions of her are seamless.

The town of Clearwater is presented as an idyllic, all-American community (which is pretty much true) although it is in reality a little larger than it seems to be here. Having been to Clearwater and the Marine Aquarium (although this was pre-Winter), I can tell you that the filmmakers got that part of it right.

Good family movies have to appeal to the entire family, not just the ones who are wearing shoes that light up every time they step, or have little wheels so they can roller about. It’s helpful when they have some valuable life lessons for the kids and are at least reasonably palatable for their moms and dads (or grandmas and granddads) who are paying for their tickets. This one fits the bill. Yes, I find it disturbing that the story of Winter – which is truly amazing even without the enhancements – was fictionalized to the extent that it was but it still remains an inspiring and affecting family film that I think any parent should feel good about taking their kids to.

REASONS TO GO: Feel-good movie that is inspiring for the entire family. Some insightful subtexts as well as solid acting performances and of course Winter herself.

REASONS TO STAY: Was the inclusion of the kid as a lead character really necessary? There are a lot of family film clichés here.

FAMILY VALUES: Some kids will find the clinical treatment of Winter’s injuries a little rough.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Some of the movie was filmed at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Winter’s real home. Producers built a new 80,000 gallon pool for filming.

HOME OR THEATER: There is nothing wrong with keeping the kids at home and seeing this on your own television.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Stone

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