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

Everybody Wants to Be Italian


Everybody Wants to Be Italian

If you'd had five cups of coffee out of this cup, your eyes would be as wide as saucers too.

(Roadside Attractions) Jay Jablonski, Cerina Vincent, John Kapelos, John Enos III, Dan Cortese, Richard Libertini, Penny Marshall, Marisa Petroro. Directed by Jason Todd Ipson

I will admit to having a more than passing affection for Italian culture. Not only do I love the cuisine (hey, I make a wicked lasagna), but I love the sense of family and belonging that is part and parcel of being Italian. Like most non-Italians, I have a bit of an inferiority complex.

Jake Bianski (Jablonski) is not Italian. He’s Polish as a matter of fact, but he owns an Italian fish market with Italian co-workers; Papa Tempesti (Libertini), the patriarch, Gianluca Tempesti (Enos), the ladies man, and Steve Bottino (Kapelos), the amateur psychologist. Jake is single but has a thing about Isabella (Petroro), the girl he broke up with eight years before. Even though she’s married and has three kids, Jake is positive he’s meant to be with her.

Of course, his buddies have all sorts of advice for him, being the caring sorts that they are. Also being busybodies, they set Jake up at a singles club for Italians, even though he’s not Italian. There he meets Marisa Costa (Vincent), a veterinarian who is also not Italian. Both of them claim they’re Italian just to justify their presence at the dance; they wind up going on a date. At the date, stupid Jake can do nothing else but talk about Isabella. Of course, Marisa figures that the two of them are still an item.

Thus they set out to be just friends, and as it turns out, they become good friends. They’re both good people and they have a lot in common. By the time Jake figures out that he wants more than friendship with Marisa, Isabella gets back in the picture.

This is Ipson’s second feature and it’s not bad, not really. Sure, it has loads of romantic comedy clichés and certainly the humor is uneven but there is a kind of offbeat Italian charm to it that kept my interest. There is a surfeit of Quirky Indie Characters to keep the filmmakers indie cred, but I can live with that.

The main leads – Jablonski and Vincent – have enough charisma and chemistry to keep the rooting interest alive. One of the big problems with romantic comedies is that often the leads are cast either because of their notoriety or because of their look. Here, it appears that Ipson tried to put two actors together who worked well together, and their relationship becomes believable; thus as the film progresses you want them to be together.

Does this pander to Italian stereotypes? The answer is yes to a large degree, but it’s never in an offensive way. These aren’t goombahs (at least to my way of thinking) but the kind of Italian you’d find in South Boston; abrasive but with a heart of gold. Nobody shoots anybody and to be honest, I loved spending time with these people, even the non-Italians.

Because the script doesn’t really go too far beyond what I would consider the standard romantic comedy fare, I had to give this a lower ranking than I might have ordinarily. I would have liked the filmmakers to go beyond the stereotypical romantic comedy situations and maybe used their ethnic choices more to their advantage. That worked wonders for Moonstruck. As it is, this isn’t My Big Fat Greek Wedding so much as it is My Big Dumb Italian Courtship. And, as we all know, the Italians are far more expert at love than the protagonists here. Don’t believe me? Get thee to Venice unbeliever!

WHY RENT THIS: There is a good deal of offbeat charm to the movie.   

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The humor quotient is a bit uneven and the romantic clichés fall a bit thick and fast.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality and a good deal of sex talk, making this a little bit much for the younger set.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cerina Vincent went from playing the Yellow Power Ranger on television to becoming a scream queen in movies like Cabin Fever.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The audition tapes for some of the lead actors are there for the perusing.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Changeling