There's such a rare, earnest quality to "Dolphin Tale" — one that is missed so often in films littered with crude humor, explosions, and violence. Here is a pure, sweet, tender, and perfectly nice tale of a young boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), withdrawn and lonely, who finds a calling in caring for a dolphin named Winter who is rescued from a crab trap but loses her tail.
"Dolphin Tale" is also an incredible true story of how those responsible for nursing Winter back to health conceive the idea of creating a prosthetic tail for the dolphin and saving her from the potential paraplegia caused by swimming with her condition. It rings with messages of hope, determination, and most of all family — this is where the film will find its largest appeal.
The film is unadulterated family fare at its very finest. A tad corny and a little cliché©, but in the end "Dolphin Tale" works because its heart finds a strong center of emotional gravity — matching that of our own hearts and warming us from within. It is absolutely impossible not to smile at this film.
It is also hard not to get a little overwhelmed at times. Parents should be advised that for young children the film might cover thematic material not yet processed by their unseasoned emotional understanding.
The film covers children dealing with parental loss, both through abandonment and death, along with a solider who returns home injured and touching scenes where young, paraplegic kids visit Winter, finding hope in her against-the-odds story. "She's just like me," exclaims a little girl to her mother. In this gentle moment, we are focused not on the girl's disability, but her radiant smile at seeing Winter swim so free despite her incapacity.
Even with such deep, melodramatic themes reminiscent of a Lifetime made-for-TV movie, "Dolphin Tale" rarely ever feels forced or emotionally manipulative. Most manipulative is the use of 3D that, while looking highly superior to many 3D films of recent, is still unwarranted. There's a goofy sequence with a toy helicopter that would have never existed had the film been conceived in two dimensions.
Nathan Gamble plays the young Sawyer with a youthful promise recalling a young Josh Hutcherson, an actor who went on to shine in the phenomenal "The Kids Are All Right," while his chatterbox friend Hazel is played with plucky zeal by Cozi Zuehlsdorff.
Harry Connick Jr., Kris Kristofferson, Ashley Judd, and Morgan Freeman round off the main adult cast, but it is Winter, happily playing herself in most scenes, who undoubtedly steals the spotlight. Delightfully playful, the dolphin casts an indisputable glee over the atmosphere of the film. Scenes where Sawyer bonds with Winter are poignant and precious — this loving friendship of boy and fish is where the movie finds its strongest emotional core.
"Dolphin Tale" hooked me when I didn't expect to be captivated at all. It's a sweetly crafted surprise — taking no detours in reaching our hearts and elating them with enchantment. Dolphins are fascinating creatures, but so are the humans in this story who so selflessly dedicated their time saving Winter's life. In a time where movies capturing the wholesome goodness of the human soul are hard to come by, "Dolphin Tale" perfectly satisfies the void.