Movie Review: Dolphin Tale

As a crowd-pleasing family film, Dolphin Tale takes few risks but will still most likely be enjoyed by its target audience.

It tells the “based on true events” story of Winter, a dolphin that lost its tail after getting caught in a crab trap off of the Florida Gulf Coast. After rescue and recovery, Winter learns to swim anew, in part thanks to a first-of-its-kind prosthetic dolphin tail.

To craft a movie around this core story, a fatherless, alienated young boy is employed as the film’s protagonist. He makes initial contact with Winter and develops a bond with her as well as the animal rescuers who facilitate her rescue and care. As we expect in this kind of film, the experience transforms the boy from a quiet, anti-social, wounded loner who is disengaged in school into a happier, gregarious, conservation nerd who rallies his community.

To its benefit and eventual detriment, Dolphin Tale only develops the supporting characters as necessary. We rarely stray from the foreground and the movie is more efficient in its storytelling because of it. That being said, I can’t help but feel that this is a case where an additional five minutes of character development for one or several characters would have elevated the film considerably.

As the chief marine biologist and director of the marine conservation center / aquarium where the majority of the movie takes place, Harry Connick Jr. is vastly underutilized in a role that could have been meatier and memorable. Likewise, Kris Kristofferson and Ashley Judd get little time to exercise their acting chops even though they deliver sincere energy to their limited roles. Even Morgan Freeman, who gets one brief scene to shine a tad more than the basic plot demanded, feels like he is there to simply lend the film’s credits some extra starpower.

So while competently made and engaging, the makers of the movie ultimately chose to take few risks. Of the film’s subplots (of which there were 4 by my count), one was at least partially successful in lifting the movie beyond its cliches and emotional manipulations. Without going into too much detail, the film shows how one character who sustains a major physical disability through war finds inspiration through the shared challenge faced by Winter, the injured dolphin. In the film’s closing credits, we see footage of the real-life rescue of Winter and also see how several people with disabilities interacted with Winter, creating templates for scenes that made it into the film.

An additional flaw to the movie is its lack of ambition toward providing any sort of ocean conservation messages. Even though the source of the movie’s plot is the direct result of a crab trap and fish nets, we never hear these matters given even a moment of discussion. Given that the movie portrays the enchanting appeal, magic, and sense of place for a conservation center / aquarium as well as any film I can remember, its an odd choice not to even give a token mention along the lines of “hey, our oceans are in pretty bad shape. We should protect them.”

In a post-Cove world, this is surprising for a set of filmmakers that obviously care enormously for their subject matter and bask it in a positive glow that will make many kids want to work with animals. The stakes are high for our oceans, and yet the film loses an opportunity to actually connect the dots for both children and adults. Sure, the movie isn’t intending to break new ground, but I felt happy that my 3 year old daughter was watching the film with me, and yet also felt like the kid-gloves were a little too soft for even her eyes.

As something of an aside, Ashley Judd has become an outspoken environmentalist in recent years. Most recently she has worked to end destructive mountaintop removal coal mining. I wonder if she is also disappointed that the movie opted to take a pass on providing some conservation messages beyond its intrinsic appreciation of dolphins and the natural world.

All of these criticisms standing, most people who go to see Dolphin Tale are going to be happy with what they get. It’s a film that doesn’t set its sights too high, but also energetically and competently tells a story that many people will  enjoy.

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