Dolphin Tale sounds like something that should be served with drawn butter and a parsley sprig. Instead, it’s an uplifting family movie about a dolphin named Winter, who loses her tail in a crab trap. So why not call it Winter’s Tale? Beats me. (Remember what kind of trap so you can answer the trivia quiz in the ads before the movie.) Reviewing this was supposed to even the score for making Justin Souther review Soul Surfer. Problem is Dolphin Tale isn’t that bad. I’m not saying it’s good, and I’m for sure never going to see it again, but I didn’t actually mind sitting through it once. I can easily imagine that families with young children will have a better time with it—and unlike many family films (The Smurfs, for instance), I don’t fear this will burn holes in viewers’ brains.
Now—having gotten the niceness out of the way—I will also note that Dolphin Tale is a good 30 minutes longer than it needs to be. It takes over an hour to get to the part of the story with Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) and the prosthetic tail—by which time Morgan Freeman has never been so welcome. The rest of the cast isn’t bad. There’s nothing wrong with Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, or the kids Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff. There’s also nothing very compelling about them—at least in this movie. Freeman, on the other hand, brings a charisma and star-quality boost to the proceedings that were notably lacking in the first hour.
The film has several instances of pointless padding—like a tedious and unfunny bit involving a radio-controlled toy helicopter—that exist for no reason other than to find something for the film’s wholly arbitrary 3D to do. There are a few other 3D fripperies—a rather obvious one involving design plans for the prosthetic tail—none of which actually add anything to the film. If ever a film didn’t cry out for 3D, Dolphin Tale is that film.
Otherwise, the movie manages to hit every mildly comedic and heartstring-tugging bit in the boy-and-his-animal movie playbook. We have the withdrawn lad—upset over his father’s desertion and his cousin’s (Austin Stowell, TV’s The Secret Life of the American Teenager) stint in the army (followed by a bit about the bitter, damaged veteran who avoids his family)—who gets a new interest in life through the dolphin. We have the about-to-go-broke marine animal hospital that’s threatened with being bought out by a presumably evil land developer. We get a bonus older wise man in Kris Kristofferson (not that Morgan Freeman ever needed any help in the wisdom department). We get how the disabled dolphin becomes an inspiration for disabled people everywhere. There’s even a comic relief pelican tossed in for good measure. A quirky pelican is worth a lot of laughs, I guess.
Some of this is at least fact-based, but it’s all been obviously Hollywooded up. But the fact is that it mostly works—while it’s onscreen—even if you know you’re being shamelessly manipulated the whole time. Whether it will stick with you is another matter altogether, as will the question of whether or not you’ll slightly resent having been effectively played by such obvious means. Personally, little is sticking with me apart from Freeman’s handling of dialogue that he makes sound cleverer than it is. But I’m less resentful than I am amused by how effective even the most obvious of cliches can be. But that’s how they became cliches in the first place. Rated PG for some mild thematic elements.