The Austin Chronicle

Dolphin Tale 2

Rated PG, 107 min. Directed by Charles Martin Smith. Starring Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, Bethany Hamilton.

REVIEWED By William Goss, Fri., Sept. 12, 2014

One hesitates to look the proverbial gift horse in the mouth, given how the Dolphin Tale series is currently among those rare film franchises wholesome enough for the whole family without necessarily advancing a preachy agenda. Not a single animal takes on the voice of a slumming celeb, and the most current pop-culture reference dropped in this sequel is a teenager’s unlikely callback to The Andy Griffith Show. It’s all so quaint to the point of being anachronistic, and considering the dearth of truly family-friendly fare in the marketplace, it arrives just in time to hold wee ones and their parents over until The Boxtrolls arrives at month’s end.

Whereas 2011’s first film was an inspirational yarn about a troubled boy and his tailless dolphin in the vein of Flipper and Free Willy, this follow-up is, much like its characters, generally burdened by the responsibilities of adulthood. For high schooler Sawyer (Gamble), this means choosing between an elite semester-at-sea program and more time spent at Florida’s Clearwater Marine Aquarium with his dolphin friend, the newly depressed Winter. For best friend Hazel (Zuehlsdorff), it means watching Sawyer talk to other girls for a change, and for her father, aquarium head Clay (Connick Jr.), it means answering to money men and USDA inspectors alike.

There are no clear villains here, nor are there easy decisions to make, but writer/director Charles Martin Smith’s well-meaning preoccupation with kids reluctant to grow up and grownups unhappy to do so casts a prolonged damper on the generally sunny proceedings. Hope doesn’t enter the picture either literally or figuratively for an hour, ultimately arriving in the form of a rescued dolphin named – wait for it – Hope. Take out the occasional wacky-pelican interlude, though, and the first half proves to be remarkably joyless when compared to the corny but effective charms of its predecessor.

The returning cast contributes its due diligence (Judd, Kristofferson, and Freeman are all pros at dispensing sage advice and wan smiles), and the reprisal of injured veterans feeling a kinship with Winter (who wears a prosthetic tail) still gets at the heartstrings a bit. To judge by the evidently restless tykes at our screening, Dolphin Tale 2’s admirable refusal to talk down to its audience gradually manifests itself as a basic inability to engage them at all.

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