All throughout the ’80s and possibly into the early ’90s, family films were part of a great onslaught. Most of that could be chalked up to uber-producer Steven Spielberg, naturally. Ranging from The Goonies to An American Tail to Free Willy to Ferngully, it seemed like there was another one always right around the corner across two decades. Then something happened along the way. I’m not sure if it’s just that Hollywood has become so void of good ideas (which could be a weekly complaint of any year) or if they’ve just given up, but there’s something truly lacking about family films these days. So it should come as no surprise to hear that the already ludicrous looking Dolphin Tale fares no better.
With a resume ranging from R-rated horror and action b-movies (Trick or Treat, Fifty/Fifty) to the original Air Bud, I guess it’s no surprise to get a movie this lackluster from director Charles Martin Smith. Look no further than this still for all you need to know about what could possibly have been running through his mind while sitting in his director’s chair. You’d could expect a little more from in the screenplay department when it comes from Karen Janszen, someone who actually knows a little something about the genre whose credits consist of Free Willy 2, A Walk to Remember, Duma, and Gracie. Honestly, there really isn’t anything too trite in the writing department aside from a few odd character ramblings that make absolutely no sense. I can’t help but wonder if these are left over from from Noam Dromi’s first draft. A suspicion reinforced by the use of the word “and” between their names in the writing credits.
Dolphin Tale is based on the true tale of a dolphin named Winter who plays herself in the movie. One day the curious dolphin is washed ashore caught in a crab trap. Local boy Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble, one of the worst child actors in recent memory) calls for help after Old Man Weather (Richard Libertini) can’t be bothered by a beached dolphin because he’s too busy being worried about his fishing rod. In comes the Clearwater Marine Hospital rescue squad to save the day after Sawyer cuts the trap off of Winter. Lead by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), Winter is off for some rescuing. After Sawyer skips summer school to check in on Winter, Sawyer meets Clay’s daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and the hospital’s pelican guard Rufus (because he lives on the roof, get it?).
Soon enough, Sawyer’s mom, Lorraine (Ashley Judd), gets a call from his summer school teacher (Ray McKinnon) informing her that he has missed an entire week of school. Sure enough, Sawyer takes his mom to the marine hospital and dazzles her with his excitement and love of all things marine. Lorraine talks the teacher into giving him credit for the class based on his involvement with Winter’s rehabilitation. There’s also side stories involving Sawyer’s cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) being shipped off to serve his country and ultimately, Winter losing her tail due to her increasing infection. Eventually Winter learns to swim by slithering through the water like a snake but then we learn that it could damage her spinal cord and lead to her death. This is when Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) finally shows up to enliven the proceedings while he dives into Lucious Fox mode to invent a new fin for Winter.
If the pacing doesn’t kill this at the box office, the unintentional laughter just may. The film’s funniest line surprisingly comes from Ashley Judd while she’s talking to Sawyer’s teacher when she says, “This is what every parent and teacher dreams of seeing, a turned on student.” Not something you want to hear out of anyone’s mouth, especially in a feel-good family feature. But of course the film marches onward with hurricanes (referred to by Lorraine as “just a big ol’ storm”), an out of place action sequence involving a runaway R/C helicopter, and life lessons being learned all around. Thankfully I did not have to suffer through this in the third dimension as I cannot see how any second of this film could possibly benefit from it. And had the film actually been more about Winter and focused less on the family factor it would have worked phenomenally better. As it stands however, it’s just another nail in the coffin of family feature films and unfortunately Dolphin Tale simply winds up simply as Dolphin Fail.
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