Based on a true story (loosely at least), Dolphin Tale is about a slightly lonely young boy (Nathan Gamble) who comes across a beached baby dolphin that’s managed to get its tale caught in a crab trap. After it’s rescued, the animal is taken to a marine hospital run by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), who realises that the tale is too damaged to recover. While many vets would just put the dolphin down, he decides to amputate the tail and see if the animal, now dubbed Winter, will survive.
Nathan soon becomes Winter’s steadfast companion, and when it appears the dolphin’s lack of a tail could cause permanent nerve damage that will inevitably lead to death, the boy is inspired by a tragedy that’s happened to a member of his family to enlist the help of Dr. Cameron McCarty, to do something that’s never been done before – make a prosthetic tail for a dolphin.
Dolphins are always a good bet for family films, as there’s no doubt they’re incredibly cute, and one without a tail is bound to tug at the heartstrings. The real Winter even plays herself in the movie, which perhaps isn’t surprisingly as there aren’t that many dolphins around with the lack of tail flukes that could have stood in for her. If she could talk, Winter would probably be the first to say that Dolphin Tail plays fast and loose with the truth, beyond the basics of young cetacean, crab trap and tail being amputated. Most of the rest of the movie makes things up out of whole cloth.
The movie certainly Hollywoodises things, even to the point of including a generic and almost obligatory subplot about the marine hospital possibly having to shut down. The other major subplot is about Nathan’s cousin being injured while in Iraq, which also feels a tad too Tinsel Town. However, despite the sense that the whole thing is emotionally manipulating the audience within an inch of its life, it’s a sweet, warm-hearted movie that works hard to leave its intended family audience with a smile of its face.
The adult cast all look slightly like they’re wondering what they’re doing there, as they are essentially just window dressing for a couple of cute kids and a dolphin! It’s not their fault though, as Laurence Olivier could be spouting one of Hamlet’s soliloquys in front of the tank, and everyone’s still going to be looking at the tail-less dolphin.
The movie certainly tugs at the heartstrings though, and this works best when you see the effect Winter has on disabled children, something that’s underlined by the real footage of her interacting with differently-abled kids that plays over the closing credits. To be honest you’d have to have a heart of stone not to be at least a bit moved by that, as while the film is tad heavy-handed, you know there’s an honesty behind this aspect of it.
One aspect that works less well is something that’s creeping into ever more films that were shot to be shown in 3D in cinemas, and that’s sequences that seem utterly pointless and rather strangely filmed. That’s until you realise the only reason for them to exist is to look cool in 3D. Dolphin Tale is by no means the only culprit, but it does contain a few sequences that seem a bit odd in 2D.
However, overall it’s a fun, warm movie that has its heart in exactly the right place. Adults might find some aspects of it a tad generic, but kids should enjoy it a lot, especially if they have a soft spot for dolphins (or amputees for that matter – although a kid obsessed with amputees probably ought to be seeing a professional about it).
Overall Verdict: It’d be tough to make a truly awful movie about a dolphin without a tail, and while not a 100% success, Dolphin Tale certainly does enough right to make it a warm-hearted family treat.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac