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.
Dolphin Tale practically sparkles on Blu-ray, with lots of shimmering, water-based sequences. Framed at 1.85:1, the 1080p AVC-encoded imagery is consistently gorgeous. A dimly-lit nighttime scene with Dr. Haskett talking to the kids suffers from a touch of black crush, but for the most part this isn’t a problem. Most of the movie takes place during bright daylight anyway. Detail is strong, such as the flaking paint and rust on the somewhat broken-down-looking marine facility. Dolphin Tale was shot digitally and the transfer is free of any visible problems.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is not especially showy but gets the job done just the same. A modestly budgeted film, Dolphin Tale doesn’t need to do much more than present intelligible dialogue and appropriately mixed music. Both requirements are satisfactorily met. Mark Isham’s score is situated mostly in the right and left channels and is supportive without being intrusive. Scenes featuring Winter or other dolphins swimming offer some splashy rear channel ambiance. The LFE channel is fairly quiet, but again this is not a criticism of the overall mix.
Supplementary features are not extensive, but do provide considerable background about the real story of Winter the dolphin. “Winter’s Inspiration” is the best of the bunch, an 18-minute look at some of the key differences between what really happened and what is depicted in the movie. “Spotlight on a Scene” and “At Home with Winter” are shorter but still worth watching, focusing more on the making of the movie and the challenges and benefits of working with a real dolphin. Shorter features include a deleted scene, a gag reel, and a couple of animated shorts. One, “Ormie and the Cookie Jar,” is a cute bit that is unrelated to Dolphin Tale. “The Hutash Rainbow Bridge” provides an animated expansion on a story told in the movie by Dr. Haskett.
Dolphin Tale is available as a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, with a code to access an Ultraviolet digital copy. It’s an excellent family movie that really earns labels such as “feel-good” and “inspirational.” The scenes featuring disabled children connecting with Winter are deeply moving. Even though liberties are taken with the true story of Winter, the presence of the real dolphin brings considerable authenticity to the project.