Dolphin Tale Review

poster from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Dolphin Tale

I was up in the air as to what to see this week. On one hand there were cute dolphins and on the other hand there was an oddly enticing math-based baseball movie. In the end, Dolphin Tale won out over Moneyball, mostly because I couldn’t convince anyone to come see Moneyball with me. After hearing that it was produced by the people who made The Blind Side and directed by the guy who did Air Bud, I had high hopes that Dolphin Tale would be both cute and moving. The storyline revealed in the trailers seemed to bear that out:

A lonely young boy befriends a crippled dolphin he finds tangled in a crab trap and helps it learn to swim again with a prosthetic tail.

You’d have to try pretty hard to make a story about a cute animal overcoming a disability fail to move people – especially kids – to tears, but now that I’ve seen Dolphin Tale, I’m sad to report that it is possible. Dolphin Tale writers Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi managed to take the true story of Winter the dolphin and muddy it up with enough subplots and triteness to make it fall flat.

The saddest part about Dolphin Tale’s failure is that it had a solid base to start from. Winter the dolphin, who plays herself in the movie, really did have her tail amputated. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which is also depicted in the movie, did rescue her and fit her with a prosthetic tail designed by a scientist named Kevin Carroll (in the movie his name is Cameron McCarthy, and he’s played by Morgan Freeman). The work on Winter’s tail helped them to fit prosthetics to a wounded airman named Brian Kolfage. Her story also inspired disabled kids and adults everywhere.

Winter the dolphin from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Dolphin Tale

How could it not? Winter is SO PRECIOUS! Look at that face!!

The wounded soldier angle was a good one, worthy of a Blind Side-like story, so they’ve included a character called Kyle Connellen (Austin Stowell), a swimmer who is wounded in Iraq and believes he’ll never make it to the Olympics with his injuries.

Kyle meets Winter from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Dolphin Tale

They seem to have forgotten to amputate his leg, however!

Unfortunately, the writers seemed to be worried that only kids would see a movie about dolphins, so they shunted Kyle aside in favor of his cousin Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) an eleven year old with no friends, bad grades, an obsession with remote control helicopters, and a conveniently absent dad. Except for one pointless and stupid wacky helicopter flight scene, they make no use of Sawyer’s mechanical skills.

Sawyer cuts Winter free from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Dolphin Tale

I think they only did it so he’d have a multitool on him to cut Winter free.

The story, therefore, becomes focused on Sawyer finding and bonding with Winter. The problem is that there’s no real commonality between Sawyer and Winter that would jerk legitimate tears. Free Willy was touching because the boy and the whale bonded over the fact that they both had no families. If they wanted to go the kid route with Dolphin Tale, they should have rolled Kyle and Sawyer into one character. If he was disabled, Sawyer’s inexplicable bond with Winter would actually make sense. If all she does is help him feel less lonely or make him interested in learning, there’s no reason for her to be disabled in the story. In fact, she could easily be replaced by a dog or a younger kid or a talking teddy bear.

Winter plays with Sawyer from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Dolphin Tale

That’s a waste of a disabled dolphin who can act!

Sawyer has more in common with Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), the girl his age whose dad Clay (Harry Connick Jr.) runs the aquarium and acts as a father figure to Sawyer. They spend so much time developing these relationships that Winter is sort of relegated to the background.

Clay, Hazel, and Sawyer have a sleepover from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Dolphin Tale

Literally. There she is in the pool behind them.

Thankfully they resisted the urge to pair the kids’ conveniently single parents. You expect Sawyer’s mom (Ashley Judd) and Clay to connect, but there is so much else going on in the plot that I think the writers forgot they set that up.

Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr. from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Dolphin Tale

Hey, nice to meet you. I’ll see you again in an hour when the movie ends.

The thing that really turned me off of Dolphin Tale, however, is the fact that it is totally lacking in subtlety. In The Blind Side they let the characters actions and decisions move the audience rather than relying on trite dialogue about the meaning of family and never giving up on yourself to beat tears out by force. The ending is especially saccharine and way too easy, with the myriad of threads, which include the aquarium being sold to a hotel developer, Kyle struggling with his injury, and Sawyer failing school, wrapping themselves up without any help from the characters.

Sawyer gives a speech from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Dolphin Tale

And now everyone will clap for me, because I am young and cute.

The most moving thing about Dolphin Tale is the end credits, which feature documentary footage of Winter’s real story set to an Irish pop song similar in sentiment to the Michael Jackson song they used in Free Willy. That ending made me wish they’d try to make the movie again, but this time maybe as a documentary.

Sawyer and Clay feed Winer from the Warner Bros. Pictures film Dolphin Tale

More cute dolphin, fewer pointless children.

Kids will still enjoy it, at least for the two hours they spend watching it, but it’s unlikely to stick with them like Free Willy or the true-to-life picture book Winter’s Tale: How One Little Dolphin Learned to Swim Again. There’s also no need to spend the extra money to see it in 3D, because they make very little use of it. Adults, meanwhile, will be left unmoved and mildly annoyed, which isn’t desirable by is at least an improvement over the bleeding eyeballs and ears you’d end up with if you chose The Wiggles or The Smurfs instead.

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