Dolphin Tale: Well-rounded entertainer
Dir: Charles Martin Smith
Cast: Harry Connick Jr, Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Morgan Freeman, Cozi Zuehlsdorff
Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Every now and then, along comes a movie that doesn't attempt to be genre-redefining and yet manages to stand out. Apart from staying true to its original intent as well as entertaining its target audience, Dolphin Tale goes a step further, by being an all-round family entertainer with surprisingly controlled levels of schmaltz.
Comparisons to 1993's Free Willy (directed by Simon Wincer) are inevitable, but if one can look beyond the cloud of nostalgia surrounding it, it's quite apparent that Dolphin Tale is a better movie. Where Free Willy was shamelessly melodramatic, Dolphin Tale is a little more realistic and more optimistic.
Based on a true story, the dolphin in question this time is the winsome Winter (played by herself). She is discovered washed upon a shore, her tail injured and bleeding, by young Sawyer (Gamble). A quiet boy devoted to building remote-controlled helicopter models, Sawyer is withdrawn and unhappy, mostly, because his favourite cousin is being sent overseas for military purposes.
As expected, his life changes after he helps rescue Winter and meets the Hasketts, a family of marine animal lovers who work at the local marine hospital. From the genial Dr Clay Haskett (Connick Jr) to his motor-mouth daughter Hazel (Zuehlsdorff), they become part of his family as they attempt to rehabilitate the injured Winter, who eventually loses her tail and has to learn to swim without it.
Director Charles Martin Smith does a commendable job with a premise that has every chance of becoming an embarrassing cringe-fest, given its inherent sentimentality, as he mostly manages to keep the proceedings kosher. Sincerity seeps from every frame of this film, be it the spark in Sawyer's eye as he develops an interest in dolphins much to the delight of his mother (Ashley Judd) to the genuine concern everyone is depicted as feeling over Winter's fate.
The movie hits a few roadblocks, such as a pointless sequence featuring a runaway helicopter and its 'climax', which builds up half-heartedly before being fixed by a convenient one-cure-for-all moment.
The majestic Morgan Freeman makes a delightful appearance as Dr Cameron McCarthy, a prosthetic specialist who attempts to develop an artificial tail for Winter. The role itself is sketchy and one Freeman could play in his sleep, but it's a pleasure to watch the heart he puts into it nevertheless, sprouting homegrown philosophy with impressive conviction.
Gamble and Zuehlsdorff turn in excellent performances as well, treading that path between tween-age precociousness and teenage idealism perfectly. However, it goes without saying that the real star of the show is Winter. Her indomitable spirit should charm even those who wear their cynicism on their sleeves.