Now available as a terrific-looking Blu-ray, Dolphin Tale is a family movie that parents are likely to enjoy at least as much as their children. The movie is inspired by the true story of a dolphin which lost its tail due to infection and was forced to learn to swim without it. Tangled in a fishing net, the dolphin is found at the story’s outset, beached and dying. Aided by a team from Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium, the dolphin – which they name Winter – is nursed back to health. Unfortunately, the missing tail results in the dolphin learning an unconventional swimming style, which will eventually lead to irreparable spinal injury.
Sawyer, the young boy who first discovered the ailing dolphin, comes up with the idea to have a prosthetic tail made in order to restore normal motion for Winter. And this is the thrust of the story, as the rehab process hits many snags along the way. There are some predictable elements, but the story is unique enough to keep the movie consistently interesting and emotionally involving.
Director Charles Martin Smith managed to walk a very fine line with Dolphin Tale, keeping it kid-friendly without ever becoming too cutesy or cloying for adults. He gets terrific performances out of his cast – most notably the actual Winter, who remarkably plays herself throughout the movie. Aside from a digital Winter shown near the beginning – necessary to depict her before she lost her tail – all of Winter’s scenes are the real deal.
Also excellent is Nathan Gamble as young Sawyer, an introvert who develops a passion for caring for aquatic creatures. Gamble strikes the perfect notes throughout, displaying sensitivity well beyond his years.
Sawyer’s mom is played by Ashley Judd, who does a nice job of transitioning from opposition to support for her son’s newfound interest. The head of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Dr. Clay Haskett, is played with charm and warmth by Harry Connick Jr. Bringing his customary authority to the role of prosthetics maker Dr. Cameron McCarthy is Morgan Freeman. Freeman perfectly conveys the initial skepticism of Dr. McCarthy, who has previously crafted prosthetics exclusively for humans. Eventually that skepticism transforms into steely determination as Winter begins rejecting the early designs.
The real Clearwater Marine Aquarium serves as the setting for Dolphin Tale. Its financial struggles are invented for the movie, and the resulting rally to raise funds to save the facility drifts towards formula. But I think that for the most part the fictional elements of the movie are appropriate, making Winter’s story far more accessible for young viewers. I can’t recommend this film highly enough – and not just for families. There is no shame or embarrassment in adult viewers getting a little choked up as they become emotionally invested in Winter’s truly awe-inspiring tale.