Though garnished with some heavy dollops of cheese, “Dolphin Tale” is a surprisingly solid, earnest family pic, based very loosely on the story of Winter, the first dolphin to be successfully fitted with a prosthetic tail. While the film piles on various backstories and morals a bit haphazardly, parents will surely applaud its underlying message of adolescent empowerment, and the far better than average cast gives this one a strong emotional undercurrent. Pic should perform well at the B.O., with even better returns on homevid.
As protagonist Sawyer, a fictional, fatherless 11-year-old, young thesp Nathan Gamble (“Babel,” “The Dark Knight”) ably carries the Florida-set film. A mechanical whiz kid, Sawyer nonetheless struggles through a remedial summer school class, has no friends and is so unsociable he can hardly bother to look up from his Nintendo DS at a going-away party for his soldier cousin (Austin Stowell), headed off to serve in Afghanistan.
His zombie-like trudge to school the next day is interrupted by an encounter with a beached dolphin tangled in a crab trap. Fascinated by the crack task force of marine biologists who show up to rescue her, Sawyer skips school to sneak out to the nearby marine hospital, where the aquarium’s home-schooled young gopher Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) takes an immediate liking to him.
The creaky-yet-homey aquarium is run by Hazel’s father Clay (Harry Connick Jr.), who lives on a nearby houseboat with his own father, Reed (Kris Kristofferson). All three generations of this family serve as inexhaustible fonts of some rather hackneyed homespun wisdom, but with actors as appealing as these (young debutante Zuehlsdorff holds her own with the elder two nicely), it all goes down rather easy.
The injuries to the dolphin (now dubbed Winter) necessitate amputation of her tail, which in the wild would mean almost certain death. With Sawyer gradually dropping out of summer school and hanging around the aquarium full time, Winter eventually develops an odd new swimming technique, swinging her tail-stub from side to side. This creates problems of its own, however, and Sawyer recruits a prosthetics expert from a VA hospital (Morgan Freeman) to construct a synthetic tail, all while the marine hospital faces closure.
The central notion here is one parents will appreciate, as Sawyer comes to learn the importance of education and engagement with the world in his own way. The film limns this lesson with subtlety, and Gamble’s strong performance helps give the film a genuine character arc where there otherwise could have simply been a heavy-handed moral.
(Other strands — especially one involving Sawyer’s cousin — come off a bit more forced, though the filmmakers are still to be commended for tackling such topics as disability and debt with unusual frankness.)
Aside from two gimmicky CGI sequences clearly intended for 3D (and rather cartoonish-looking without it), the pic is smartly constructed and trusts its young audience to pay attention through long spells without any superfluous slapstick or one-liners (a sadly rare quality in contemporary family pics). Animal wranglers put in terrific work with the central creature (portrayed by the actual dolphin the pic is based upon), and location scouting in Clearwater, Fla., provides for some believable scenery.