Blissfully swimming against the hyperactive kidpic tide, “Dolphin Tale 2” gently peddles inspirational life lessons while respecting both its characters and its audience. Arriving three years after its surprise hit predecessor, this sequel about the unbreakable bonds between a boy and his dolphin remains too square and earnest to appeal beyond families and animal lovers. Nevertheless, writer-director Charles Martin Smith hits the sweet spot for that target audience once again, and in the process delivers a more streamlined storyline and ever so slightly darker shadings to further justify the follow-up. Duplicating the original’s $72 million domestic B.O. could be a challenge — especially given the commendable decision to ditch the first film’s unnecessary 3D release — but solid returns look like a walk in the aquatic park.
All the key “Dolphin Tale” players return here, beginning with plucky protagonist Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) — now an increasingly self-assured young teenager — and his marine mammal pal, Winter (playing herself with occasional assists from animatronics and visual effects). Both on- and offscreen, Winter managed to survive and thrive after the amputation of her tail with the assistance of a custom-designed prosthetic, becoming a star attraction at Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
That’s where Sawyer spends his summers working alongside noble role model Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who shares Sawyer’s passion for sea life and begins to develop more than just a platonic affection for the boy she’s grown up with. (The delicate progression of their unrequited romance dodges genre conventions for something a little less predictable, which can’t exactly be said of the pic overall.)
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With Sawyer and Winter both facing sudden turning points — Sawyer in the form of an offer to spend a semester at sea in a prestigious study program and Winter in the wake of the death of elderly aquarium poolmate Panama — the drama pivots on two questions. Can Clearwater locate a USDA mandated companion for Winter? And can Sawyer comfortably leave her behind to pursue his own dreams? Any mild suspense is squashed with the late arrival of a baby dolphin named (what else?) Hope — a fortuitous plot twist also inspired by real life events.
Much of “Dolphin Tale 2” is as on-the-nose as Hope’s name, but parents aren’t likely to object to a film that provides squeaky clean entertainment without sending gag reflexes into overdrive. Even in the movie’s most egregious flights of fancy — young Sawyer lecturing a room full of adult professionals on the best methods to introduce Hope to Winter; a comic-relief subplot detailing a pelican’s nearly stalkerish obsession with a sea turtle — the innate warmth of the characters provides enough of a ballast for all but the most extreme cynics.
Indeed, an unforced sense of decency emerges as the most noteworthy element here, especially with Smith’s script paying special attention to the last part of the aquarium’s “Rescue, Rehabilitate, Release” mantra. If an animal is healthy enough to return to its natural habitat without threatening its safety, that’s what will happen — a strict tenant for Haskett that causes some friction with Sawyer and Hazel when it compromises their ability to hold on to Winter after Panama’s passing.
Pic’s sturdy emphasis on compassion as a virtue extends to the limited screen time for overqualified supporting players Ashley Judd as Sawyer’s mom and Morgan Freeman as Winter’s prosthetic designer. They’re both primarily on hand to capably deliver words of wisdom without descending into preachiness.
Those strengths compensate for a proficient but largely undistinguished tech package — although the visual effects employed to blend shots of real and artificial dolphins, often within the same scene, are a little more seamless now than they were three years ago.
Rachel Portman’s soaring score is an even more marked improvement over the first “Tale,” but the standout tech element remains the same: sparingly used underwater cinematography by Pete Zuccarini. This time he works in tandem with documentarian Bob Talbot, unencumbered by the need for oversized 3D cameras, and captures a strikingly beautiful submarine ballet featuring pro surfer Bethany Hamilton (playing herself in a fleeting cameo) swimming with Winter to rep the humble pic’s aesthetic high point.