erik lundegaard

Dolphin Tale

Dolphin Tale (2011)


Picking on “Dolphin Tale” is like picking on the polite kid at school with the combed hair and the shirt buttoned to the top. Only a jerk would do it.

Here I go.

Written byKaren Janzen
Naomi Dromi
Directed byCharles Martin Smith
StarringHarry Connick Jr.
Ashley Judd
Nathan Gamble
Kris Kristofferson
Morgan Feeeman

Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is a quiet kid in the small, coastal town of Clearwater, Fla. His dad ran off five years ago, his mom (Ashley Judd, everyone’s mom now) is a busy nurse, while his favorite cousin, the hunky state swimming champion Kyle (Austin Stowell), has joined the Army to save money to train for the Olympics. Because that’s how it’s done these days. State swimming champions don’t go to college, and Olympic hopefuls don’t get funding; they just go off to war in their athletic prime and hope to return whole. Since the movie is about a dolphin without a tail, you kind of know where this subplot is going.

Besides being a Mr. Fix-It in the garage, Sawyer is also dumb. Or at least he’s flunking school: Ds and Fs. That’s why he has to go to summer school. And that’s where he’s biking one morning when the Old Jewish Fisherman on the beach (’70s sitcom staple Richard Libertini) tells him to call 911 because a dolphin has washed ashore tangled in ropes and nets. Sawyer, with the trusty Swiss Army knife his cousin gave him (“Family is Forever” inscribed on the side), cuts the worst of the ropes off and talks to the dolphin until a rescue unit arrives. This unit is led by ultra-serious dad, Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.), chatty daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), and the usual background contingent of buff dudes and fit girls.

Sawyer slowly gets immersed in their world. He shows up uninvited, meets a comic-relief pelican, Rufus, and discovers that the dolphin he rescued, named “Winter” by Hazel, is slowly dying. Ah, but Winter revives when she hears Sawyer’s voice! She starts trilling. She starts caring. So Sawyer is allowed to stay.

Except wait, isn’t he supposed to be going to summer school? Ah, but his mom decides, after one line of dialogue from Kyle’s father (who knows best), that this is a better experience for Sawyer than diagramming stupid old sentences in a classroom.

Except then Winter loses her tail; it was just too damaged by the crab trap. Ah, but with Sawyer’s help, she learns to swim side to side rather than up and down!

Except this damages her spine. And the spine is everything. Ah, but at the local VA hospital, where Kyle is recuperating from damaging his leg in one of America’s many unnamed wars, Sawyer meets a prosthetist, Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman, on loan from Bruce Wayne), and convinces him to create a prosthetic for Winter!

Except Winter won’t wear the prosthetic. Ah, but ...

And thus the movie stutters along in this episodic manner: from “Except” to “Ah, but!” From handwringing conflict to facile resolution.

By the end, the major conflicts are three-fold: 1) Will Kyle get out of his funk?; 2) Can Morgan Freeman create a prosthetic Winter will wear?; and 3) Can they save Mr. Clay’s aquarium from being shut down? The resolution to this last is particularly facile. The aquarium and land, without government funding, is bought by a rich developer, Philip J. Hordern (Tom Nowicki, looking like Richard Branson), who plans to turn it into seaside resorts. Except the kids do an Andy Hardy number and put on a show that’s hugely successful, particularly with amputees, and it melts the developer’s heart; and he lets them keep the aquarium and do whatever they want with it. Cue cheers.

“Dolphin Tale,” written by Karen Janszen (“Free Willy 2,” “Duma”) and directed by Charles Martin Smith (my man from “American Graffiti,” “Starman,” and “The Untouchables”), is based on a true story. Winter exists, the prosthetic exists, she’s an inspiration to amputees. So you feel like a shit saying anything bad about it. But the story they’ve constructed around this true story is steeped in an anodyne 1950s TV sensibility, where fathers know best, women and girls have clumsy enthusiasm, and everything is telegraphed so we won’t be worried for long. I imagine the real story is much more interesting.

—September 6, 2014

© 2014 Erik Lundegaard