Reviewed by Kevin Finnerty
“She really seems to respond to you. Maybe she’s not giving up after all,” says one of the trainers at the Clearwater Marine Hospital in Florida to young 11 year old Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) about the seriously injured dolphin named Winter in the family film, Dolphin Tale.
When the film begins, Winter is swimming freely in the ocean when she gets her tail trapped in a crab trap. Washed up on the beach and dying, she is discovered by Sawyer who almost instantly connects with the mammal. Whenever he’s around she becomes alert to his presence and attempts to do whatever he tells her to.
Winter gets transported to the Marine Hospital for care, but her injury is too severe and Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) has to remove her tail. Sawyer, who now helps out at the hospital instead of attending summer school, asks the question which is on everyone’s mind, “How does a dolphin live if she can’t swim?” Winter is one determined mammal and begins to swim by moving the remainder of her back tail end from side to side instead of up and down. At first everyone is overjoyed to see Winter doing so well, but after an examine and x-rays show that the dolphin is doing damage to her muscles and will eventually ruin her spine and die, Sawyer becomes desperate to save his closest friend.
While visiting a recovering vet in a hospital with his mother (Ashley Judd), Sawyer approaches Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), a specialist in prosthetics, and tells him about Winter’s condition. It’s not long after that that Dr. McCarthy joins forces with Sawyer and Dr. Haskett to build a very special prosthetic tale for Winter in the hopes of saving her life.
Inspired by a true story, Dolphin Tale is a touching family drama that will have the audience cheering for Winter and Sawyer even after the credits roll. The film has a perfect blend of heart, humor and soul, and captures the struggles and emotions of everyone involved trying to save the dolphin.
Harry Connick Jr. is effective as Dr. Hackett, Winter’s first doctor who is impressed by her determination to recover and by the bond between the injured dolphin and young Sawyer. Nathan Gamble is, unfortunately, not convincing in his role at first as the lonely shy boy who discovers a whole new world and his first friend…a dolphin. It’s in the second part of the film when he becomes the team leader of Winter’s care that he finally grows into the part. Morgan Freeman is perfectly cast as Dr. McCarthy, the brilliant prosthetics expert who becomes Winter’s only hope for survival. If anything the film should have used more of Freeman’s character. The best performance by far in the movie is Winter, the dolphin playing herself who steals every scene she’s in. She becomes a symbol of hope and encouragement to all those with disabilities, especially children.
There are two drawbacks to the film: the pacing is a little slow, especially in the beginning, and it gets too sappy and cute in a few scenes. But despite the rough spots, Dolphin Tale is inspirational and heart-felt, a charming, sweet, fun, family film that will entertain both kids and adults and have the audience yearning to learn more about Winter as they leave the theater.
Dolphin Tale hits theaters on September 23, 2011 and is rated PG for some mild thematic elements.
More on Dolphin Tale:
—Info and cast list