A guy like me — to qualify that statement, old enough to grumble about people who turn without putting on their signal — could sit back and find oodles of faults with a movie like Dolphin Tale: it’s a little cheesy, it’s emotionally manipulative and, at one point, the great Morgan Freeman calls a dolphin “a fish.”
Yep. I could. But I won’t. ‘Cause, honestly, this is one of those feel-good beauties that would make me feel like a cold-hearted grouch if I were to nitpick. Sometimes, you’ve gotta go with your heart and Dolphin Tale has a whole lot of that.
The movie is about Winter, the real-life dolphin who was accidentally snagged in a crab trap off the Florida coast, lost her tail and — with the help of a young outcast, an aquarium staff and a prosthetics doctor — survived to swim another day. In essence, it’s like an underwater version of Rocky. Only, instead of a punch-drunk Italian boxer, it’s a squeaky fish … er, make that mammal.
Nathan Gamble (if he looks familiar, it’s because the kid has been doing bit parts in big movies like The Dark Knight and Marley and Me for a long time) plays Sawyer, the 11-year-old boy who, along with a fisherman, finds Winter stranded on the beach. Socially awkward and failing every class in school, Sawyer finds new purpose in helping the dolphin to recover. It’s a pretty predictable role that could’ve swerved into precocious, but Gamble is so subtle in his performance (the little guy probably doesn’t understand the term grandstanding), he’s quite easy to root for.
That said, predictable does sum up the supporting grown-up lineup. Morgan Freeman does his lovable curmudgeon stint as the prosthetics expert, Harry Connick Jr. is the aw-shucks marine veterinarian and Ashley Judd, playing Sawyer’s mom, does the mom thing … crinkles her brow when she’s concerned and cheers her kid on when she’s happy. None are jaw-dropping efforts, but they’re serviceable and don’t take away from the reason we’re all seeing the movie anyway and that’s a certain sea critter that will capture your heart. And if she doesn’t, check your pulse.
This isn’t director Charles Martin Smith’s first time at this sort of dance. He wrote and directed Air Bud, so he knows exactly who his audience is (kids) and exactly what they want (a few tears, a few laughs and Morgan Freeman churning out sweet lines like “Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re broken”).
Dolphin Tale is probably Smith’s best flick yet, simply because it accomplishes everything it wants to do, but appeals to the adults who bring the young ones. Or, at least, it should.
Out of a possible five stars, I’ll give Dolphin Tale a three and a half. The feature is currently playing at the Pen-Mar Cinema Centre in Penticton.
Jason Armstrong is a movie reviewer living and watching in the Okanagan.