Live-action family movies are a tough sell for me. I’m quick to jump on board for an animated adventure. I’ve willingly seen more cartoon kid’s movies over the last few years than any non-parent really has the right to see and I often quite enjoy them. But I generally draw the line on family films when the characters stop being toy cowboys and flying dragons. I’ve grandfathered in the ones I saw as a kid, from Swiss Family Robinson to The Goonies to Jumangi, but their current counterparts hold nothing for me. I find that this genre is overly cheesy and whereas the escapism of animation allows me to overlook this in the standard Dreamworks or Disney cartoon, I can’t do it when there are real humans on the screen. I confess, however, that the trailers for Dolphin Tale piqued my interest despite my internal protestations. Maybe it was the animal element (I’m a softie for a lost or injured pet), maybe it was the manipulative and uplifting music, or maybe it was just the presence of Morgan Freeman. Whatever the case may be, I sat down for this film with moderate anticipation and came out satisfied and slightly wet-eyed.
Dolphin Tale is the big screen adaptation (and adaptation is key this time around) of real life events that took place a few years ago on the Florida shoreline. Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is a pre-teen with bad grades, an absent father, and no friends. His mother (Ashley Judd) worries how he’ll handle the departure of his one confidant, Cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), when he ships off to his military assignment. Everything changes for Sawyer, however, when he stumbles across a dolphin trapped on a beachside entangled in a fishing net. Sawyer follows the dolphin to an animal hospital where he meets Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.) and his daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). They name the dolphin Winter and Sawyer becomes more invested in her recovery than he has ever been in any living thing. He despairs when he learns that Winter will lose her tail fin due to the damage but as the dolphin continues to fight for her life, Sawyer comes up with a wild idea: he recruits a prosthetics expert, Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Freeman), who agrees to create a new fin for his first non-human subject. As Winter struggles to adapt to her new way of life, Sawyer and the Haskett’s work tirelessly to preserve the life of their new friend and save the facility in which she lives.
All cards on the table, there are many elements of Dolphin Tale that I could pick on. It has numerous cheesy moments that brought about full-body cringes, the story is as predictable as you might expect, and the child actors are…well…child actors. Gamble and Zuehlsdorff both have a lot of work ahead of them should they wish to extend their respective careers. Despite these obvious obstacles, however, as Dolphin Tale progressed, I found myself less willing to criticize and more willing to simply enjoy the film for what it is: quality family fare with an endearing narrative that is almost impossible to ignore. It is like a Top 40 pop song that you normally wouldn’t enjoy but is so catchy that you find yourself singing along so often that you eventually just bite the bullet and buy the thing on iTunes, hoping that no one looks through your playlist. In essence, Dolphin Tale is to cinema what Lady Antebellum is to my iPod. I couldn’t help but like it.
Where Dolphin Tale excels is in its ability to tell a story with authenticity. I bought into Winter’s will to live and the need for Sawyer and the Hasketts to see her through to recovery (this is aided by the fact that Winter plays herself here rather than relying on a CGI stand-in). The narrative was, for me, very organic, more so than you usually find in this type of “tug-at-your-heartstrings” family film. Don’t get me wrong, director Charles Martin Smith (yes, that Charles Martin Smith, the accountant-turned-gunslinger in The Untouchables) uses music and shot selection just like you might expect to build up the bigger moments of the film, but I didn’t feel manipulated. Whereas most movies of the genre become sluggish and lazy in their attempts to get the audience to connect, I found it very easy to engage the story this time around. Dolphin Talehas a tremendous amount of heart and that shines through genuinely and consistently, making it both emotionally relevant and accessible. There were not many dry eyes in my theater and those that were probably belonged to soulless robots but I’m just guessing on that point. Dolphin Tale is an all-around likeable film that should have a much more wide-ranging appeal than many of its contemporaries.
Dolphins have got to be a top 10 animal on the scale of awesomeness,