Managing Editor; Dallas, Texas (@peteramartin)

Sometimes you need a break from blood-sucking creatures of the night and bone-crunching martial artists. On the gentle, more humane side of life, Dolphin Tale strikes a good balance, appealing to young people without pandering and keeping their parents engaged without insulting them. It dramatizes the real-life story of a dolphin that loses her tail fin and the efforts by humans to help her.

So, yes, this is a tale about a tail.

Directed by Charles Martin Smith (Cotton Candy) without fuss or fancy, from a original screenplay by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi, Dolphin Tale introduces the titular creature by way of 11-year-old Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a quiet, withdrawn boy who is forced to attend summer school after failing most of his classes. He lives with his mother Lorraine (Ashley Judd) in the coastal city of Clearwater, Florida, and appears to be disinterested in life. His father is out of the picture, and Kyle (Austin Stowell) his closest male relative, a champion high school swimmer with aspirations of competing in the Olympics, has enlisted in the Army to earn enough money to pay for his training.

The disconsolate Sawyer happens to pass by a fisherman (Richard Libertini) at the same time that a dolphin washes up on shore. The hapless animal is entangled in a crab trap, and her tail badly damaged. Sawyer compassionately stays with the dolphin until an animal rescue unit arrives. The next day, Sawyer sneaks into the marine hospital and learns that Winter, as the injured dolphin has been named, may not survive very long. Shortly thereafter, her tail is amputated, apparently dooming her to an early death, since dolphins require tails to swim and survive on their own.

Rest assured, however, that Winter's tale does not end there.

Sawyer becomes absorbed in the activities of the marine hospital and becomes friends with Hazel, a girl about his age (Cozi Zuehldorff); Dr. Clay Haskett, her father (Harry Connick Jr.); and her grandfather Reed (Kris Kristofferson), a sailor who fell from grace from the sea and is now retired, living on a boat docked next to Hazel and Clay, and periodically dispensing nuggets of grandfatherly wisdom.

Sawyer cuts summer school to help care for Winter, which understandably upsets his mother. But once Lorraine sees for herself what Sawyer has been doing, she becomes warmly supportive. She has to work full-time, and she'd rather see him spend his days happy doing something "real" as opposed to sitting unhappily in a classroom taught by a stern teacher (Ray McKinnon).

The film tempts fate by teasing plot elements that could become groan-worthy: a smiling bully at Sawyer's school, the mutually eligible, single status of Lorraine and Clay, a money-conscious board member (Frances Sternhagen), a developer who could be broadly painted as a villain. Quite reasonably, however, Dolphin Tale avoids becoming sidetracked by such distractions, instead keeping most of the focus on Winter and her long road to recovery.

That doesn't mean the film can resist the temptation to dip its toes into melodramatic waters and engage in silly antics. Two short sequences appear to have been inserted solely to justify post-conversion to 3D; they're unnecessary and their tone is out of whack with the rest of the movie. The melodrama comes from a parallel story involving Sawyer's swimmer cousin and what happens to him in his military service.

As a result, Dolphin Tale sometimes feels soggy, as the film digs too hard to wrest tears from the eyes of empathetic viewers. ("Cry, damn you, cry!") Then Morgan Freeman enters the picture as a superhero / prosthetic specialist who may have a solution for the tail-challenged Winter, and all becomes right with the world

For the most part, Dolphin Tale is honest and true, supplicating parents to consider the best way to instruct their children, encouraging children to seek out the natural world rather than the virtual, and proclaiming to everyone the wonder and beauty of a dolphin in flight through the water.

Dolphin Tale opens wide across the U.S. on Friday, September 23. Check local listings for theaters and showtimes.


Dolphin Tale

  • Charles Martin Smith
  • Karen Janszen
  • Noam Dromi
  • Harry Connick Jr.
  • Ashley Judd
  • Nathan Gamble
  • Kris Kristofferson
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Charles Martin SmithKaren JanszenNoam DromiHarry Connick Jr.Ashley JuddNathan GambleKris KristoffersonDramaFamily

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