You'd be hard pressed to find a movie more wholesome and well intentioned than Dolphin Tale 2. The story of Winter, the dolphin with the prosthetic tail, is given a new chapter wherein kids are offered some life lessons about change and determination. Peppered with plucky animals, sweet-faced heroes, and earnest but by no means devastating drama, Dolphin Tale 2 is sure to please the 10 and under set, though it's hard to imagine it impressing beyond that.
Dolphin Tale 2 picks up back at the Clearwater Marine Hospital in Florida, where Winter is happily living with her mechanical tail and dolphin peer, Panama. Her lead handler, young Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), has built a reputation for his work with Winter, and so has been offered a rare scholarship to attend a three-month marine animal education program held abroad on a large ship. It's a thrilling opportunity. But when tragedy strikes, Sawyer struggles to imagine leaving Winter for the summer.
When Panama dies of old age (44!), this throws Winter into a depression. She rejects her prosthetic. Her exhibit is shuttered. And the USDA is threatening to transfer her unless Clearwater can pair her with another female. But as this is a rehab center for rescues, not SeaWorld, that's easier said than done. The posters and trailers tease, however, that these animal lovers luckily find an abandoned baby girl dolphin named Hope. Now all theirs are pinned on Winter and this newbie hitting it off.
Charles Martin Smith, helmer of Air Bud and Dolphin Tale, knows the real stars of his film are the animals. Between his live animal performers and convincing CGI, he crafts sufficiently realized characters from a grieving dolphin to an eccentric pelican that are a joy to watch. There's a playfulness to the animal scenes that will have kids of all ages cooing. The human drama is less engaging, as Sawyer's problem is barely a conflict. Still the human cast does their best to invest in these low stakes, as well as those of Clearwater's business concerns. The latter demands a boardroom scene where a panel of grown-ups urgently discuss a depressed dolphin.
The human plotlines pale in comparison to the animal ones, and can make the movie lumber along. But they are pleasant enough with the cheery lead performances of Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff. Plus, children will appreciate this fantasy world where tweens are entrusted with so much responsibility at a respected animal sanctuary. Harry Connick Jr.'s Clearwater runner/father doesn't treat the Sawyer and Hazel as children, but instead talks to them with a level of respect that suggests they are peers, being equally concerned and educated on the well-being of the sea life cared for there. A scene where Hazel politely but firmly demands access to a rehabbed dolphin's files is particularly effective, because it's a moment where her father (and boss) allows her to come a hard realization on her own, rather than talking her through it.
Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd are warm in their supporting turns. But sadly these typically captivating performers are required to do very little beyond setting up stakes for the tween protagonists. Morgan Freeman, on the other hand, is actively distracting as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, a curmudgeonly prosthetics expert who only appears to be in the sequel because he was in the first film. He pops in to grumble metaphorical advice--which veers dangerously into a potentially offensive stereotype--and makes a string of so-called jokes that fall flat every time he opens his mouth. He was on set, but he wasn't present.
But its flaws are minor. Dolphin Tale 2's goals are unambitious but they are achieved. Smith has made a sequel that is sweet and inspiring. It is competently shot with an affable cast, and carries on the inspirational themes of the first film. A cameo by Soul Surfer subject Bethany Hamilton as well as a sequence with a war vet amputee re-enforce Dolphin Tale's message about the possibilities of a full life after amputation. New themes about the importance of change are not thoroughly explored, but kids clamoring over more time with the lovable Winter won't care. All in all, Dolphin Tale 2 will likely delight children in awe of the ocean or obsessed with animals. All others should look elsewhere for engaging entertainment.