by Tim Ross
Stories of humans bonding with a creature of some kind are almost as old as movie-making itself – Timmy and Lassie, The Lone Ranger and Silver, Elliott and E.T. – so there’s nothing new about the bond young Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) forms with an injured dolphin in “Dolphin Tale.” Loosely based on a true story, the premise may be nothing new but that doesn’t keep the film from being a pleasant, sweet family offering.
Sawyer is a kid dealing with single-parent life with his mom Lorraine (Ashley Judd) and the prospect of summer school. That’s challenging enough for any kid, but Sawyer’s cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), who he views as a replacement for his absent father, has joined the military and is being shipped overseas.
However, an unlikely friend enters Sawyer’s life when he discovers a beached dolphin while riding his bike to summer school. The frightened animal is caught in a crab net and is tangled in ropes. Saywer cuts the ropes binding the animal, eyes meet and an immediate bond is formed.
Winter survives the ordeal, but her tail is removed to save her life. Nothing that I could find pertaining to the real Winter (who you can view and learn more about at www.seewinter.com) points to the animal bonding with one particular person, much less a young boy, during her rescue and rehabilitation. However, the relationship between Sawyer and Winter serves the movie well. It points out the level of communication that can exist between any two sentient beings if they listen to each other.
“Dolphin Tale” also beautifully, and somewhat surprisingly, illuminates how friendship and family don’t follow a set path. From Winter’s severed tail to Sawyer’s fractured family and an injury Kyle suffers in the war, everyone has lost an appendage in this film, but the message is that one can be broken and yet still deserving of love and value. There’s not one traditional nuclear family in this tale and yet family is at the core of the message. When Sawyer proclaims near the end of the film that he and Winter are family, you believe it.
A host of well-known stars populate “Dolphin Tale,” headlined by Morgan Freeman as the innovative doctor who takes on the challenge of designing a prosthetic tail for Winter. Harry Connick Jr. plays the firm-but-loving owner of the rehabilitation center and Kris Kristofferson plays his wise and wizened father, while Judd gets short shrift as Sawyer’s mom.
But the film belongs to Gamble and precocious newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff as his friend Hazel. She sees the good in Sawyer, Sawyer sees the worth in Winter and Winter brings out the best in all of them.
My major complaint is this is yet another example of needless use of 3-D technology and the ticket premium that comes with it. I will continue that complaint in films to come unless some filmmaker finally utilizes the technology to noticeably enhance a film.
“Dolphin Tale” brings out the cheers and the tears and it’s a cool added feature to see the real Winter on the web or even to visit her if you’re compelled to make the road trip to Clearwater, Fla. Of course, it’s a much closer drive to a nearby cinema to check it out on the big screen.
Grade: 3 out of 4
MPAA Rating: PG for mild thematic elements
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Nathan Gamble, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures