THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
It's almost impossible to watch Dolphin Tale without thinking of Free Willy. Both films are about young boys who defy their parents (and eventually win them over) in order to help an aquatic mammal. The difference is that Free Willy transcended the naturally sappy tendencies inherent in telling such stories, whereas Dolphin Tale largely falls victim to them. In the end, the movie skirts by on the fact that, doggone it, who can totally resist little boys and cute dolphins?
Nathan Gamble plays Sawyer, an alienated kid who discovers a wounded dolphin on the beach. The poor thing has gotten caught in a fishing net. Sawyer calls for help, which comes in the form of Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr.), who runs a somewhat rundown marine hospital. Haskett tries to nurse the dolphin, dubbed Winter by his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), back to health. Because the infection is too bad, he ultimately has to amputate her tail. Knowing that she'll die if she can't swim properly, Sawyer – who's been skipping summer school to hang out with Winter and Hazel – comes up with a plan. He approaches Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), a doctor at the local VA hospital, and asks him to build the dolphin a prosthetic tail. The doctor agrees, only to find that the process requires a lot of trial and error. Meanwhile, Sawyer's mom, Lorraine (Ashley Judd), finds out what her son is up to and disapproves...until she sees just how he comes out of his shell around Winter. Then she tries to convince the boy's teacher to excuse him from getting an education.
Okay, I'm already drifting into snark. It's just my natural reaction to cheese, and Dolphin Tale has plenty of cheese to go around. Don't get me wrong – that's not a complete deal breaker. You have to possess a heart of stone to not get at least a little wrapped up in a story such as this. It's pleasant, unoffensive, and genial.
It's also more than a bit bogus. As with many pictures “inspired by a true story,” Dolphin Tale contains as much fiction as fact. In real life, there was no little boy who came up with the idea of a prosthetic tail. It was the idea of, you know, actual marine biologists. You can read the true story on the official website of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. It's pretty fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that one wonders why the filmmakers felt the need to turn it into a cliche-ridden, formulaic family film. This is one of those pictures where the plot moves in a by-the-numbers fashion, and no problem is so big that it can't be easily solved by a heartfelt, 30-second speech. There's even the requisite subplot about the aquarium hitting hard times financially, which means they'll have to sell it to the big bad businessman who – you guessed it – wants to bulldoze the place and build hotels on the land.
One nice bit of reality: Winter plays herself. She really does exist, and she really does have a prosthetic tail. Seeing the real deal gives Dolphin Tale a much-needed dose of personality. The details in the script may be fudged, but you're looking at a genuinely fascinating creature right there. The struggles in getting her to adapt to her new tail are realistic too. These scenes are, by far, the best, most compelling things in the film. It doesn't need sappy speeches, or slapstick moments where people fall into water tanks, or Ashley Judd being chased by a pelican. It simply needs all the Winter it can get.
Young kids, who haven't been exposed to these cinematic cliches before, will likely fall in love with Dolphin Tale. As an adult with an admitted fondness for boy-and-his-creature stories, I found it a mixed bag. The closer it stays to the truth, the more entertained I was. When it veered into fiction, I found it hokey and dull. The ratio of one to the other is about 50/50. Not a terrible film, by any means, but not as good as it could have been had it adhered to reality.
( 1/2 out of four)
Dolphin Tale will be released in a Blu-Ray 3D combo pack, a 2D Blu-Ray combo pack, and on DVD December 20. It will also be available for digital download.
The bonus material on the Blu-Ray is pretty good. “At Home with Winter” and “Winter's Inspiration” offer insight into the true story of Winter, including interviews with the people who work with and care for her. You'll also learn how the real facility was turned into a movie set. I really enjoyed this material because it gave me what I wanted: the true story of this amazing dolphin and the people who did groundbreaking things to save her life.
“Dolphin Tale: Spotlight on a Scene" examines the opening credit sequence, which mixes actual underwater footage with CGI dolphins. Director Charles Martin Smith (yeah, that's right – Terry from American Graffiti) discusses how he conceptualized the sequence, while CGI artists talk about the challenges of making the dolphins look realistic.
“The Hutash Rainbow Bridge” is an animated short that visualizes a story Harry Connick, Jr. tells in the movie. It's a pretty cool story, actually. Also included is a second, unrelated cartoon, “Ornie and the Cookie Jar,” a couple of deleted scenes, and a gag reel.
Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are excellent. A digital UltraViolet copy is also included in the pack.
Dolphin Tale is rated PG for mild thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 53 minutes.
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