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Home Blog Popcorn Parent Movie Reviews Movie Review: Dolphin Tale (PG)

Movie Review: Dolphin Tale (PG)

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Length: 113 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

Age Appropriate for: 6+. What happens to the dolphin to make her lose her tail is kind of gross, and the pain she suffers from the wound is certainly affecting. Also sad are images of soldiers returning from war without various limbs, but overwhelmingly the film’s message is about hope and overcoming obstacles, so all that depressing stuff is for a legitimate purpose.

During ‘Dolphin Tale,’ you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll worry about the state of dolphins and soldiers everywhere. The film about a dolphin that could is really about what we’re all capable of, even if it shamelessly furthers that idea of ‘hope’ and ‘change’ with unnecessary 3-D.

By Roxana Hadadi

“Dolphin Tale” is kind of a strange movie for its intended audience. Targeted for older elementary school students or younger middle schoolers, “Dolphin Tale” is about finding yourself and fighting for what you believe in, like an educational aquatic center and an inspirational dolphin without a tail. But it’s also for parents, with a parallel storyline about soldiers returning home from Iraq, and it’s also for younger kids, with really unbelievable CGI of a dolphin leaping into the air toward us and practically leering at the camera. Like, what?

With all these different themes and plots, “Dolphin Tale” tries its hardest to be a whole-family movie, using various methods to cater to various populations. But unlike movies such as “The Lion King 3D,” which made big bucks in rerelease last week, “Dolphin Tale” doesn’t cohesively fuse all those elements together in a way that isn’t laughably hokey. In trying to be so serious, it’s too serious. In trying to be so goofy, it’s too goofy. It can’t quite grasp the right balance, and while the movie is still an acceptable option for children of varying ages — especially if they are disabled, love nature, or both — it’s not an instant classic.

It is rousing, though, and director Charles Martin Smith (whose most important children’s movie contribution is “Air Bud”) and writers Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi know how to wrench tears from an audience. The film tells the true story of a dolphin named Winter, who in 2005, at 3 months old, was caught in a crab trap near Cape Canaveral, Fla. With a rope tied around her mouth and her tail rapidly losing circulation, the dolphin was spotted by a fisherman and sent to recover at Clearwater Marine Aquarium; though Winter unexpectedly survived, her tail had to be amputated. Again defying the odds, Winter soon learned how to swim again, moving side to side instead of up and down, as dolphins normally do — but the movement switch was beginning to damage her spine, leading to media attention that moved nationally renowned prosthetics designers to craft Winter a new tail.

In real life, all this happened over a period of two or so years; in “Dolphin Tale,” it takes place during a summer vacation from school. Troubled youngster Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), withdrawn after his father abandoned him and his mother Lorraine (Ashley Judd), has brought home such terrible grades that he’s forced to attend summer school; things only get worse when his older cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), a local swimming champion, decides to join the military to get money for college. With Kyle away, Austin languishes, zoning out during classes and basically isolating himself from everyone around him.

That changes when he spots something unusual while biking to school one day: a dolphin caught in a trap, washed up on the beach, obviously dying. Something sparks in Austin — some measure of humanity that’s been lurking inside the sad kid — and, after workers from the Clearwater Marine Hospital come to take Winter (playing herself) away, he can’t stop thinking about the dolphin. He sneaks in to visit her that afternoon, and the day after that, and the day after that, befriending Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), head of the nonprofit organization, and his daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff).

But skipping school can’t be condoned in a children’s movie, obviously, so when Austin’s mother finds out about him ditching class, she immediately tries to ban him from going to the hospital again. When she sees how Winter and Austin interact, though, and she realizes that the two may be better for each other than anything Austin could learn in school, her view softens. Nearly immediately after things start looking up for Austin and his mother, however, their family’s hopes are dampened when something terrible happens to Kyle during military training, thrusting him into a situation very much like Winter’s.

How will the human adapt? How will the dolphin? Their parallel stories experience overlap in the form of Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), who designs prosthetic limbs for soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq and who gets a very special idea from Austin: a new tail for Winter. Can it be done? Should it? The film mulls over those ethical questions while dazzling us with the beauty of marine biology, saddening us with the truth of the economic downturn and sobering us with the acknowledgment of the challenges disabled people face every day.

You’ll feel good at the end — otherwise, this wouldn’t be a family-friendly flick, let alone one released in 3-D — but expect a bunch of tears along the way, as “Dolphin Tale” grabs every possible depressing subplot and jumps on it. The nonprofit could be shut down because of money problems? Kyle could never walk again? Austin may fail summer school? A hurricane could jeopardize the hospital’s headquarters? So. Much. Sadness. And logistically, it’s a little puzzling to figure out what’s fact in this adaptation and what’s not: Austin and Kyle are fictional characters, but Dr. McCarthy is based on the very real Kevin Carroll, vice president of Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics in Bethesda, Md., who spent years designing Winter’s tail with fellow prosthetist Dan Strzempka. Perhaps it was easier to make one character out of the two men, but tweaks like that raise questions about what else was modified for Hollywood.

Other flaws include the bits meant to make the best use of 3-D, which seem the most slapped-on, like when Austin’s toy helicopter goes haywire and zooms around the hospital, or when a happy Winter jumps out of the water and into your face. They’re clearly money-grabbing shots, but “Dolphin Tale” doesn’t suffer too much because of them, and you can always see the film in regular 2-D instead.

Take the kids, cry a little, learn a little. “Dolphin Tale” isn’t a perfect film to see with your family, but it serves a legitimate purpose — and for children with a disability, it’s probably the most encouraging form of entertainment they’ll see all year.

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