Cute, family-friendly animal films often devolve into mawkish sentimentality. Director Charles Martin Smith's Dolphin Tale happily proves to be one of the exceptions-an endearing, emotionally intelligent film that touches the heartstrings without pulling on them.
The film revolves around the true-life story of Winter, a dolphin who washed ashore a Florida beach with her tail caught in a crab trap. Though the Clearwater Marine Aquarium rescues her, Winter's tail soon becomes infected, and the doctors are forced to amputate the tail. A prosthetics specialist soon learns of her plight and designs a prosthetic tail to help her swim naturally.
Built around this true story is an invented coming-of-age story about an introverted young boy (Nathan Gamble) who discovers Winter on the beach. His interest in the dolphin's well-being and the aquarium staff's discovery that the boy is the only person to whom Winter responds compel the boy to leave his shell and assist in rehabilitating the dolphin.
Gamble is a fine young actor, movingly portraying the angst and aimlessness of a boy whose father has abandoned him and his mother (Ashley Judd) and who slowly gains confidence as he finds purpose in the dolphin's plight. Judd does an exceptional job conveying a mix of emotions at her son's blossoming.
The film boasts a strong supporting cast, starting with Morgan Freeman as the eccentric prosthetics specialist whom the boy convinces to develop a new tail for Winter. Harry Connick Jr. also does a fine job as the doctor at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, a laid-back personality forced to confront the aquarium's dire financial circumstances while struggling to save Winter and the other animals under his care. Also a bright and energetic delight is Cozi Zuehlsdorff as the doctor's homeschooled young daughter, whose outgoing personality helps draw the boy into the rewarding and life-affirming work of the rescue aquarium.
The viewer who gives this heartwarming film (rated PG for thematic elements) a chance will likely find it a rewarding experience.
All film producers hope to make a financial profit, but some also try to promote a cause through their films. In the case of Dolphin Tale, Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment are highlighting the work of veterinarians, biologists, and volunteers at the nonprofit Clearwater Marine Aquarium to rescue, rehabilitate, and release (if possible) sick and injured marine animals.
In telling the story of Winter, the producers built two new marine pools that are now in permanent use at the aquarium for other injured animals. Realizing the potential publicity (and financial) boon the film will bring to their work, aquarium staff have placed placards describing different aspects of making the film throughout the aquarium.
The work done on Winter's new prosthetic tail has also led to the development of a very soft and elastic material that is now being used to make prosthetic limbs for humans more comfortable. The inspiration Winter has given to amputees and other injured people is highlighted in the film through the main character's older cousin, who serves in the Army but suffers an accident that leaves him needing a leg brace to walk. The injury drains his self-worth, which his cousin helps him find again through the effort to save Winter.
Director Charles Martin Smith admits that he is drawn to stories of perseverance and those that promote man's relationship with nature. Child star Nathan Gamble says he appreciates this film for its clear illustration of "honor, integrity, trust, and hope," virtues reflected in Gamble and his radiant child co-star Cozi Zuehlsdorff, both of whom are professing Christians. Zuehlsdorff, also homeschooled in real life, prayed before each day's shoot and brings considerable enthusiasm to her work.
Dolphin Tale, with its spotlight on injured marine animals, mixed with an inspiring tale of perseverance, hope, honor, and other virtues, may spread its influence beyond the cineplex.