"In this changing world, it's harder than ever to find something extraordinary, but every once in a while, a symbol of hope breaks through. And this time, her name is Winter."
There's nothing extraordinary about the film Dolphin Tale. It's a fairly by-the-numbers tale of survival with a bit of "we need to save the rec center" thrown in for good measure. What makes the film a very good one though, is the true story of a dolphin named Winter who lost her tail in after getting caught in a crab trap and washing ashore near Clearwater, Florida. All summer long, I was inundated with advertisements and trailers for the film every time I went to the movies, and the trailer tells pretty much the entire story.
It's sad that we live in a day and age where the people who cut trailers for films treat their audiences with such contempt that they feel the need to give away every major plot point in the trailer. The first noticeable example of this for me was Pleasantville, a movie I absolutely adore, but I was so angry after I saw it and realized that every major plot development was revealed in the trailer. I had an eerily similar experience here, and if you have somehow managed to avoid the trailers, I would urge you to continue to do so before you see the film. In fact, avoid my review as well.
The film tells the story of a young boy named Sawyer (Mason Gamble) a lonely outsider who lives with his mom (Ashley Judd) and doesn't seem to have many friends aside from his swim champion cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell). While riding home from school one day, he comes across a fisherman who has discovered a beached dolphin caught in a crab trap. The local marine rescue team, headed by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick, Jr) arrives and transports the dolphin to their research facility. The dolphin, Winter, ends up losing her tail to infection. Sawyer stops by to visit Winter and strikes up a friendship with Clay's daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). The doctors have been having a hard time getting Winter to respond to them, but she instantly responds to Sawyer, most likely because she recognizes him as the one who cut her free from the trap.
Sawyer begins cutting class to spend time with Winter and the Hasketts, which inevitably gets him in trouble with his mother. After bringing her to the facility to meet Winter, his mother pleads with his teacher to allow him to miss the semester to spend time living and learning at the center. Sawyer's cousin Kyle has gone off to war and there was an incident that caused him to permanently damage his leg and he has been discharged and sent home. When he goes to visit Kyle in the VA Hospital, he also meets Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), a prosthetics expert, whom he convinces to come to the center to meet Winter. Winter has been swimming without her tail, but in doing so, she has been causing damage to her spine and muscles, and if she continues to do so, may become paralyzed and die. Dr. McCarthy agrees to help figure out a way to construct a prosthetic tail for Winter.
Things are further complicated by the fact that a wealthy entrepreneur has offered to buy the struggling marine center in an attempt to ease its financial woes, but he wants to tear it down and build a luxury beachfront hotel. Of course, without a top-line research facility, Winter will likely die before they can raise enough money to save the center. I guess it's a bit obvious where all this is headed, but needless to say, it all works out in the end. It wouldn't have made for a very good movie if it didn't.
The film is full of heart and is a thoroughly wonderful film to watch with your family. Winter becomes an inspiration to people with disabilities and missing limbs all over the country, and people begin coming from all over to see the dolphin. In my favorite scene, a mother and her four year-old daughter drive from Atlanta to see the dolphin they've heard about. The daughter is missing a leg and when she sees the dolphin, she says "look Mommy, he's just like me." It's a simple and genuinely touching scene that made even a tough guy like me cry. Yes, it's heavy-handed, but it's genuine. It's not John Williams ratcheting up a swelling orchestra to cue you in to the fact that you're supposed to be having an emotional reaction to what you're seeing. You feel the pain and the hope that Winter inspires.
The film ends with a montage of footage of the real Winter, who plays herself in the film, and her journey. The most affecting scenes in the montage involve real life amputees, many of them children, who came to visit Winter and see the dolphin who was just like them. It's beautifully done, and almost makes me wish this had been a documentary instead of a dramatized version of the events. I watched it with my daughters, and my oldest daughter Clementine genuinely enjoyed the film. She told me about halfway through, "Daddy, this movie is really good. We should buy it." I don't want to say I was swayed by her opinion of the film, and maybe for a time, my enjoyment of the film came vicariously through her enjoyment of it, but the film is powerful, mainly because Winter's story is powerful.
Winter is a fighter and the people who are inspired by her are fighters too, and that is what makes the story so compelling. It would be so much easier to succumb to adversity and just give in, but the heart of a fighter beats inside Winter and gives the people who see her and touch her and are inspired by her the will to carry on and continue their fight. It's a lesson we all should take to heart. Likely most of us don't have anywhere near the struggles to overcome that these characters do, but just as they fight on, so too should we.
The film is directed by Charles Martin Smith, a former character actor famous for his roles in American Graffiti and The Untouchables, and he avoids a lot of the sentimentality that tends to bog down films like this. It's not the best directed film you'll ever see, but you never feel manipulated by it, and that's so key to making a film like this work. With a lesser director behind the camera, the film could have easily been treacly mush, but he's a smart enough director to skirt those obvious emotional manipulations and let the power of Winter and those around her move you.