Dolphin Tale is a gussied-up version of a touching real-life story. In 2005, just off the coast of Florida, a young dolphin was rescued from a tangle of crab-fishing gear, but her damaged tail had to be amputated. Touched by the plight of a crippled dolphin, a maker of prosthetic limbs engineered a synthetic tail so the dolphin, named Winter, could again swim properly. She swims so well, in fact, that six years later, she is playing herself in director Charles Martin Smith's movie. "Sweet story," some studio suit must have said. "But can we get a lonely kid in there?"
Not only does this version of Winter's experience include the classic saga of the needy child who blossoms in the company of a wild mammal; the filmmakers have also piled on some very contemporary angst. Dolphin Tale is more of a human's tale, with interwoven subplots that include a young man's sacrifice in Iraq and a nonprofit's struggle to say afloat in a recession. This last point is particularly relevant, since it prompts the terrible words, "We have to start thinking about putting Winter down." Dolphin Tale is crafted for demographic appeal to all four quadrants and maximum heartwarming. It doesn't look particularly special despite the visual potential of underwater scenes but kids are going to eat this up. Given what a dismal year it's been for the family film, it's likely their parents will too.
The lonely boy is 11-year-old Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), who can build a cool model helicopter that flies but is stumped by academics. He's on his way to summer school when he happens upon the traumatized dolphin on the beach. He cuts away some of the tangled lines, using a pocketknife given to him by his idol, his cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), a former high school swimming champ, just before he left for war. Sawyer and the beast share an intense moment in the sand it's very Flipper meets From Here to Eternity.
The dolphin ends up at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, ministered to by Dr. Clay (Harry Connick Jr.) and his young daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). Having Connick bedside to take temperatures and play the saxophone would be enough to cheer up many mammals, but Winter is partial to the troubled latchkey boy. Sawyer's mom Lorraine (Ashley Judd) does something for work that involves long hours and scrubs but not a lot of money; Dad walked out on her five years earlier. (Is this what happened to Ruby in Paradise, last seen in Florida in 1993?) The movie is not quite cheesy enough to reward widower Clay with poor abandoned Lorraine, which is unfortunate, because Judd hasn't had fun onscreen in years. Remember when she used to run around with Morgan Freeman, playing brave and misunderstood women in jeopardy?
Actually, Freeman's here too, playing the good doctor who engineers Winter's tail. So is Kris Kristofferson, as Clay's dad Reed, a sailor who can quote John Masefield's poem "Sea Fever." Freeman and Kristofferson mostly stand around gazing beatifically at the rest of the cast, but they do it well enough to make the movie seem a little better than it is.
None of the big names matter quite as much as the kid and the dolphin, the hearts of the movie. Gamble doesn't have that scary perfection of the overtrained young actor; he seems genuinely, winningly moody, as if his director were having a hard time getting him to smile. (For a kick, go back and watch Elijah Wood do a similar sulk in 1996's Flipper, pre-Fellowship.) Gamble is no novice, though he played the son of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett's characters in 2006's Babel.
As for Winter, she can thrash when needed and seems to eye the world with fear or curiosity or kindness, depending on what's appropriate. I admit to being distracted from the importance of the quest to fit her with the perfect tail by thoughts of another, ongoing dolphin tale. The Oscar-winning documentary The Cove told the story of the annual killing of thousands of dolphins in Japan: those left over after trainers have selected from giant herded masses of dolphins potential Flipper types for amusement parks. While human beings can construct a tail for a creature with skin as smooth as silk, no one can figure out how to halt the mass slaughter of her brethren across the globe. It doesn't make much sense. But this far prettier, sweetened-for-consumption tale serves a purpose a little education, a little entertainment and a message about the importance of finding a passion. Stay for the credits, which feature footage of Winter in her pool at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, mingling with disabled humans who visit her for comfort and inspiration. There's nothing contrived about those heartwarming scenes.