For children, "Dolphin Tale" is pleasant enough and it should make for decent family fare. But the film piles on enough sentiment to drown a pod of whales.
Full disclosure time: I love dolphins. Call it the "Flipper" syndrome. People of a certain age will remember the 1963 movie and the TV show spinoff about the plucky mammal.
Then again, who doesn't love dolphins? Nature gave them a perpetual smile. They're intelligent, cute and playful. And unlike with killer whales, you can swim with them and not risk death. Take a bow, "Free Willy."
I only wish I could say I loved "Dolphin Tale." For children, the movie is pleasant enough, and it should make for decent family fare. But the film piles on enough sentiment to drown a pod of whales.
The credits say the movie is "inspired by the amazing true story" of a dolphin that lost its tale yet learns to swim with a prosthetic. "Inspired" is the operative word. Very little about Winter's tale you see in the movie actually took place. For example, the dolphin is rescued by a fishing boat in real life, not a boy. But that doesn't make for a very dramatic story.
Do you think the boy, Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), is a happy, well-adjusted child with an idyllic home life? Get serious. He's a loner. He's incredibly shy. He gets picked on by bullies. He has problems at school and he has his father abandonment issues. That's called stacking the sympathy deck. Ashley Judd plays his long-suffering mother, Lorraine.
Sawyer probably would have turned into a serial killer as an adult if he hadn't met Winter. Think the dolphin and the boy will form an indelible friendship? Dolphin, come home. Attaboy.
To up the sentiment factor further, Sawyer meets Hazel Haskett (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who is as extroverted as he's introverted. Think the relationship in "Up." She also happens to be the daughter of Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), who runs the Clearwater Marine hospital where Winter is being treated after running afoul of a crab trap. Think Hazel has a mom around? Get serious. Disney has been killing off parents to heighten sympathy for its lead characters ever since "Bambi." This film continues the tradition.
But wait, there's more. Sawyer's cousin, Kyle Connellan (Austin Stowell), who serves as the boy's father figure, goes off to war. Uh-oh. What do you think is going to happen to him? Check off "parallel storyline."
But wait, there's even more. A hurricane damages the hospital and it might have to close, threatening Winter's life. What can be done? Hey, Mickey and Judy, let's put on a show.
Need even more sentiment? Let's wheel in a handicapped girl who finds inspiration in Winter's story.
Continuing the Disney formula, the film adds another animal for comic relief. This one is a pesky pelican. Kris Kristofferson plays Clay's father to impart words of wisdom. Then, for good measure, Morgan Freeman shows up as the wise-cracking prosthetics pro.
The only cliche left untouched here is for Clay and Lorraine to become romantically entwined. Maybe that will happen in the sequel, if there is one. "What's wrong, Winter? Has Timmy fallen down a well?"
One or two of these melodramatic devices would have sufficed, but director Charles Martin Smith is clearly not one for subtlety. Among his previous directorial efforts is "Air Bud" about a dog that can play basketball. "Dolphin Tale" is at least an improvement.
Now before you fire off the "you're such a hater" email, this film does feature some positives. For example, the acting. Gamble and newcomer Zuehlsdorff form a nice friendship and the supporting cast is top-notch with Stowell a standout. Of course, Winter is the real star. The script by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi avoids condescension, a sin committed by far too many children's films.
"Dolphin Tale" comes from the folks who brought you "The Blind Side," so you can expect to walk out of theater feeling good. I would have felt better if the film had placed more trust in the inherent drama of Winter's story without dumping on all the sugar. Diabetics, beware.
Note that this film is available in 3-D and 2-D versions. Save the money and skip the 3-D unless you crave watching CGI dolphins swim. Even Flipper would have flipped that off.
"Dolphin Tale" opens Friday.
Starring Nathan Gamble, Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Cozi Zuehlsdorff and Morgan Freeman
PG (for some mild thematic elements) 112 minutes
Directed by Charles Martin Smith