When I was in elementary school we’d begin every school year telling the teacher what we wanted to be when we grew up. While my go to answer was “Paleontologist” – a was a touch obsessed with dinosaurs – easily the most popular answer was “Marine Biologist.” It made perfect sense: kids love going to the beach, it’s much cooler than saying “Veterinarian”, and both Free Willy and Flipper came out when I was between the ages of six and nine. Now the Charles Martin Smith-directed Dolphin Tale is coming out in theaters with the intention of pulling the same trick, but while the movie certainly has oceanic life forms at the center of the story, it’s lacking just about everywhere else.
Inspired by a true story, the film tells the story of Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), a directionless kid living in Clearwater, Florida with his single mother (Ashley Judd). While riding his bike to summer school one day, his attention is called to a beached dolphin that has gotten its tail stuck in a crab trap. Though Sawyer calls the local marine hospital quick enough to save the porpoise’s life, the head doctor, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), has no choice but to amputate the animal’s tail. While the dolphin, which has been named Winter, is fine at first, they discover that without a tail she is doing irreparable damage to her spine while swimming. Thus begins a quest to find someone that can build Winter a prosthetic.
Here’s the main problem with the film: what you just read above is a good three-quarters of the plot. While I typically try to avoid major story details in my reviews, Dolphin Tale necessitates it due to poor pacing and a severe lack of content (that and it’s in all of the trailers). The movie isn’t excessively long – clocking in at 113 minutes – but the bulk of it is dedicated to Sawyer swimming around a tank with a tailless dolphin. To make up for the lack of content, writers Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi try and fill the gaps with side stories about Sawyer missing his cousin who is serving overseas, the hospital being in financial trouble, and the protagonist’s relationship with Dr. Haskett’s daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). But as the title suggests, the main draw of the film is Winter, and that story isn’t nearly long enough to sustain a feature length film.
The movie's schmaltzy tone doesn't help either-- because it’s a movie about an injured dolphin, you walk into the theater expecting some healthy tears but Smith tries to rip them out of you at every moment he can. Most of the emotional exploitation involves Sawyer’s cousin, Kyle (Austin Stowell), who returns from the army early due to an injury. The movie tries to establish a parallel between Kyle and Winter that never really clicks, but really, the scenes where the cousin struggles with his new disability are included simply to induce weeping. Just like all emotional manipulation, it may be effective, but it’s also completely unnecessary.
Despite all of that, though, the younger crowd is almost guaranteed to love it. Rufus, the marine hospital’s resident pelican who likes chasing around strangers, will likely be the only thing eight-year-old members of the audience talk about for weeks after seeing the movie. What’s more, Gamble and Zuehlsdorff are perfect surrogates that will allow your little progenies to see themselves as Sawyer or Hazel. The movie has a solid message about not being lazy and learning to become passionate about something, which parents will greatly appreciate. It’s a shame that Smith didn’t make a real effort to include stuff for audiences of all ages.
Dolphin Tale is the kind of movie that was born because a studio executive got dollar signs in their eyes while watching the Today Show a few years back. It’s sorely lacking on meaningful story and tries way too hard to make the audience cry, but to the movie’s credit it does have its cute moments and could very well inspire a whole new generation of marine biologists.