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Movie Review: Dolphin Tale

The story of a marine mammal who gets a little help from her human friends

(L-r) Nathan Gamble as Sawyer Nelson, Morgan Freeman as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, Austin Highsmith as Phoebe, Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Hazel Haskett and Harry Connick Jr. as Dr. Clay Haskett in Dolphin Tale

Photo courtesy Jon Farmer/Warner Bros. Pictures

Morgan Freeman, Nathan Gamble and Harry Connick, Jr. in "Dolphin Tale."

Directed by Charles Martin Smith
Rated PG, Runtime: 112 minutes
Starring Harry Connick, Jr., Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, Ashley Judd

En español  |  From the folks who brought us The Blind Side comes Dolphin Tale, a heartwarming film based loosely on the true story of Winter, an injured dolphin who washed ashore on a beach in Clearwater, Florida, after her tail got caught in a crab trap. But the heart of the drama is provided by 11-year-old Sawyer (played by Nathan Gamble of Marley & Me and The Dark Knight), who frees the dolphin from the trap and finds purpose in following her rescue and rehabilitation by staff at the Clearwater Marine Hospital.

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Sawyer is in a funk. His father is out of the picture, and his mom, played by Ashley Judd, can’t seem to reach him.  He loves to build and invent things, but he’s not doing well at school, and he falls deeper into a pit when he learns his older cousin Kyle, whom he looks up to, has decided to put aside a competitive swimming career and join the Army straight out of high school. Gradually, Sawyer gains confidence, and a second family, as he offers to help care for Winter, who seems to hold a special fondness for the boy. Dr. Clay Haskett (played adequately but somehow oddly by Harry Connick Jr.), director of the Clearwater Marine Hospital, determines that Winter’s tail, infected with gangrene, will need to be amputated, and that she’ll need some artificial assistance to be able to swim — essential for her survival. Haskett, as it turns out, is a single dad to Hazel (newby Cozi Zuehlsdorff), an adorable girl Sawyer’s age. She and Sawyer become fast friends, mentored by Haskett’s dad (Kris Kristofferson), who lives on a nearby houseboat.

Dolphin Tale is jam-packed with subplots, some seemingly forced for dramatic effect. The marine hospital is mired in debt. A hurricane threatens. And Kyle returns from Iraq morose and in a wheelchair. It’s at the VA hospital where Kyle is being treated that Sawyer meets Dr. McCarthy (played brilliantly, as always, by Morgan Freeman), who manufacturers prostheses for the wounded soldiers he cares for. Couldn’t McCarthy, Sawyer asks, design a prosthesis for Winter that would enable her to swim?

I like that Dolphin Tale takes up some serious subjects — faltering businesses, war and wounded soldiers — though writers Karen Janszen (Free Willy 2) and Noam Dromi could have cut back on the sap, especially when dealing with the future of the marine hospital. And why the producers thought the film — shot beautifully on location in Clearwater — needed to be done in 3-D I don’t understand.  Some of the silliest scenes — namely a pesky pelican who routinely appears out of nowhere — are seemingly included for the sole benefit of special effects.

Still, Dolphin Tale offers up enduring messages about never giving up and the curative powers of human-animal interaction. And it’s a film that will satisfy adults and children alike. Best of all, Winter got to play herself — and that’s a happy dolphin tale if there ever was one.