What It Is
Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) is dreading summer as Dolphin Tale begins. He’s 11 years old and facing summer school and, worse, the departure of his beloved cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), who’s heading to Iraq for a tour of duty. For Sawyer, this calls up some bad memories of abandonment, as his dad left years ago and hasn’t been heard from since.
And then one summer morning, while he’s riding his bike to school, he finds Winter. She’s a dolphin, washed up on the beach in Clearwater, Florida, and she’s injured, ropes from a crab trap cutting into her skin and wrapped around her tale. While he’s waiting for a marine wildlife rescue team to arrive, Sawyer cuts her loose with the Swiss army knife Kyle has given him. Winter’s appreciation indicated in some point-of-view camerawork: she looks up at her savior, his face concerned and his hands gentle. And so a wonderful, unlikely, and frankly fantastic friendship is born.
Based on a true story and subsequent children’s book, Charles Martin Smith’s movie traces the evolution of that friendship, framing it as a series of Important Life Lessons for Sawyer and, not incidentally, for Kyle. For while Sawyer finds a focus in looking after Winter at the Marine Hospital — invited by the resident doctor, Clay (Harry Connick Jr.), his energetic daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), and her wise grandfather Reed (Kris Kristofferson) — his cousin returns home from the war, injured and depressed. The film goes on to parallel Winter’s recovery and Kyle’s, as Sawyer inspires them both. As it turns out that both Kyle (who happens to be a former champion swimmer) and Winter are missing parts — a leg and a tail — Sawyer convinces his cousin’s prosthetics specialist, Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), to help Winter, who will die if she can’t swim with a prosthetic tail.
These two parts of Sawyer’s story are framed by a few other developments — the imminent closing of the marine hospital for lack of funding, a hurricane that all but destroys the facility, and Sawyer’s relationship with Hazel. She’s the sort of quirky cool movie girl who motivates little boys her age to grow up, to see complexities, and to be better little boys. Sawyer’s lucky as well to have a great mom, Lorraine (Ashley Judd), who argues with his teacher that her son’s newfound enthusiasm for the dolphin is helping him to expand his world more than any single English class might. With her support, Sawyer finds a sense of mission and commitment in Winter.
It’s not long before Sawyer and Winter are also inspiring the adults around them. Clay finds a way to keep the hospital open, by making it an educational center too, Dr. McCarthy devises a tail Winter can tolerate, and Kyle embraces his new life, with complications. Even Sawyer’s English teacher sees the light, giving him school credit for writing an essay about his summer with Winter.
Why It’s Fun
Sawyer’s interactions with Winter are heartwarming and mostly convincing. And it’s this relationship that makes the movie fun for kids especially — an intelligent animal connects with a boy in need of attention and affection. He sees in Winter a will to survive even when facing obstacles.
Similarly, Sawyer’s friendship with Hazel is both charming and touching. Sometimes they break rules and sometimes they’re sad, sometimes they’re clever and sometimes they’re silly, like kids viewers might know. They discuss their missing parents (her mother has died) and share their love of animals and more generally, “nature” — and, much to Sawyer’s surprise, learning.
The film uses mostly real dolphins (including the real Winter, now living at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium) to create Winter and other animals at the hospital — including a rowdy pelican named Rufus — and the result is a believable collection of animals, rather than broadly drawn cartoons.
Who’s Going To Love It
Viewers who like dolphins will be happy to see so much of Winter, whose lively personality and impressive intelligence come across in her interactions with the humans.
The film will appeal as well to viewers interested in coming of age stories. The film is a little awkward about integrating Hazel into Sawyer’s education — as she’s a few steps ahead — but they’re cute together on screen, save for an over-antic scene where she crashes his remote-control model helicopter.
What To Be Aware Of
The movie includes some reachable moments, such as Sawyer’s brave decision to help Winter on the beach, even though the blood, and his worry he might make a mistake, scare him.
Kyle’s struggle with his injuries is also vivid. Angry at first, he turns against Sawyer, who must learn to accept his cousin’s pain and help him through it, rather than feeling angry in return, as he has so long been mad at his absent father. Kyle’s injuries are revealed in a couple of scenes, especially when he has an emotional confrontation with Dr. McCarthy.
The film doesn’t go into detail regarding the difficulties Lorraine faces as a single mother, but she’s well aware of Sawyer’s upset about his father and his cousin, and she behaves admirably and sensibly.
A sequence showing a hurricane hitting Florida is predictably tumultuous (Lorraine is very good with Sawyer, reassuring him). It might be a little scary for younger viewers, or viewers who’ve had a previous, similar experience.
8 out of 10
Director: Charles Martin Smith
Cast: Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Kris Kristofferson, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Morgan Freeman, Austin Stowell, Frances Sternhagen, Austin Highsmith
Studio: Warner Bros.
US Premiere: September 23, 2011
UK Premiere: October 14, 2011