Solid family entertainment is delivered in this film inspired by the true story of the first dolphin to be fitted with a prosthetic tail. Though the film meanders through some chum-heavy patches, this genuine crowd-pleaser from the producers of The Blind Side is a worthy new entrant into the boy-and-his-underdog film genre.
Young Sawyer Nelson (Gamble) of Clearwater, Fla., is a withdrawn kid who’s stuck in summer school when he encounters a beached dolphin while riding his bicycle to class. Handy with gadgets, Sawyer manages to use his pocketknife to loosen the ropes that have entangled the dolphin. Moreover, Sawyer becomes instantly fascinated by the mobile rescue unit of the Clearwater Marine Hospital that comes to scoop up the animal for emergency treatment. He goes to the facility and comes under the spell of its managerial family and the rehabilitation work done there. Headed by Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick Jr., whose unlikely casting as a marine scientist occasionally causes unfortunate flashbacks to the Seinfeld episode in which George Costanza pretends to be a marine biologist to impress a girlfriend). Haskett’s daughter, Hazel (Zuehlsdorff), is around Sawyer’s age and has free run of the facility, and his dad (Kristofferson) keeps things shipshape on the Hasketts’ houseboat that’s moored alongside the hospital.
Sawyer’s natural affinity with the dolphin helps the boy emerge from his shell over time, as does support from his mother (Judd) and the Hasketts. Subplots that involve the hospital’s financial crisis and Sawyer’s cousin, a soldier wounded in Afghanistan, add heft to the story, and Morgan Freeman has a jolly time as the prosthetics doctor at the V.A. hospital who devises a new tail for the dolphin, now dubbed Winter. It’s all a little overloaded, but director Charles Martin Smith (Air Bud) handily keeps the sap at bay while moving the story forward. The 3-D version of Dolphin Tale proves thoroughly unnecessary, however. The effect dulls the azure beauty of the water and is certainly not worth the additional admission cost. (UT-Austin grad Michael Corenblith is also on board as the film’s production designer, same as he was for The Blind Side.) Inspirational in the very best sense, Dolphin Tale honors the values of commitment, perseverance, and full inclusion for all life’s damaged mammals.