Warner Bros. // 2011 // 112 Minutes // Rated PG
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // December 29th, 2011
Inspired by the amazing true story of Winter.
December twenty-one was a rough day in the Thomas household. My eight-year-old son had strep throat, my youngest son had a massive case of the sniffles, my daughter had a low-grade fever, and my wife, a high school science teacher, was exhausted from a grueling semester. Me, I had walking pneumonia. So we were all pretty much tired, achy, and above all, cranky. I popped in a disc. In no time, we were caught up in a charming tale of a boy and his dolphin. Warner Bros. brings Dolphin Tale (Blu-ray) before the court. The evidence will show that the winning tale of a boy and a dolphin is solid family fare.
Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble, The Dark Knight) is having a rough time of it. Several years ago his father abandoned him and his mom Lorraine (Ashley Judd, Bug), and lately he's had trouble focusing on his schoolwork. Making matters worse, his one bulwark, his cousin Kyle, has been deployed to Iraq. One day, Sawyer discovers a young bottlenose dolphin tangled in a crab traps. The dolphin is taken to the Clearwater Marine Hospital, run by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr., Copycat), where he and his team struggle to save the dolphin, whom they name Winter. Winter repulses their efforts, until Sawyer turns up at the hospital; she's much calmer when he's around, and Haskett allows Sawyer to help care for the stricken creature. Sawyer starts skipping school to spend time at the hospital, drawing the ire of his mom. When she sees how caring for Winter has improved Sawyer's disposition, she lets him continue volunteering at the hospital. Unfortunately for Winter, its tail was badly damaged in the net, and an infection forces its amputation. Winter eventually develops a side to side motion to swim without her tail, but that motion is beginning to cause spinal problems. Meanwhile, Kyle has returned from Iraq, having lost a leg. Kyle's prosthetic leg gives Sawyer an idea, and he convinces Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption) to design a prosthetic tail for Winter.
However, noble thoughts and good intentions don't pay the bills. After a hurricane seriously damages the hospital, the board of directors is faced with selling the hospital to a developer who wants to build a hotel. Sawyer and his friends have to come up with a way to raise enough money to save the hospital and save Winter.
You probably know how this turns out.
The court finds itself in the too uncommon situation of praising a family film for its restraint. It's all too easy for a movie like Dolphin Tale to descend into saccharine schmaltz, and you have to give credit to the producers as well as director Charles Martin Smith (The Untouchables) for not allowing emotions and histrionics to get out of control, and for avoiding a lot of the easy pitfalls -- there's no romance between Haskett and Lorraine, for instance, despite the two actors being oh so pretty. While the financial crisis subplot is a complete contrivance (the hospital never had such funding issues in real life), it brings a sense of urgency to the proceedings; at the same time, it is handled in such a low-key manner that you don't feel insulted.
Instead, the focus stays on Winter, and her struggle to survive. When the producers pitched the idea to the folks at the Clearwater Aquarium, they made it clear that they wanted to tell Winter's story, not just make a movie that featured a cute dolphin. Most of the work by the human actors is related to figuring out what is going on in Winter's head -- for instance, how do you explain to an animal what a prosthesis is? The lion's share of the work falls on Nathan Gamble's capable back; Sawyer's relationship with Winter echoes that between Alec and The Black Stallion, with Sawyer understanding Winter on a near-instinctive level. The growing bond is developed for both drama and comedy, with all the scenes handled deftly. A secondary focus is the manner in which Winter becomes an inspiration to other amputees. While a lot of dramatic license is taken in this section, it works because the filmmakers let the emotion evolve naturally, using Kyle as a surrogate for other amputees.
Acting is solid. Nathan Gamble has the hardest part, as he has often has to serve as the voice for Winter, trying to figure out what's going on in her head. Connick and Judd do a solid job without drawing attention to themselves, if that makes sense; they keep the plot moving while remaining in the background. Freeman brings a little quirky style to his role, but then we've pretty much come to expect that. Make no mistake, though -- Winter is the real star here.
Dolphin Tale (Blu-ray)'s 1.85:1/1080p high definition widescreen transfer is a little soft in spots, but crisp overall. Maybe a bit too crisp at times, as the CGI work is obvious. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is well defined; it isn't exactly showy, but it does a great job of recreating the ambient noise at the aquarium, from the noise of the animals and people to the hum of the pumps.
The bonus features are somewhat slight for a major studio family-friendly release. A couple of animated shorts and a breakdown of the opening CGI sequence are fairly straightforward. A making-of featurette offers insight into only the production, but also the workings of the aquarium, as the film was shot at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium -- the production even built Winter a larger tank so that they would have sufficient filming room. Interestingly, several months before filming began, they placed mockups of cameras and other filming gear in and around Winter's tank so that she could get accustomed to their presence. A second featurette recounts Winter's real-life story with archival footage, showing not only her injury and recovery but also showing amputees of all ages interacting with her (similar archival footage is used with the movie's end credits). The set also includes a DVD copy and an Ultraviolet digital copy.
There's too much CGI. The movie opens with a school of CGI dolphins jumping through the water; the problem is that it's clear that it's CGI, and it's not like there's any shortage of dolphin footage out there. The most likely explanation is that the CGI made for easier 3D conversion (the reviewed disc is simple 2D; however a 3D edition is available). There's also a CGI sequence of a runaway remote control helicopter that serves little point other than to show off the 3D.
The court really can't say that Dolphin Tale is a great movie; the basic plot is too formulaic. However, within the constraints of the formula, it's an exceptional film and one suitable for all ages.
Review content copyright © 2011 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 1.85:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Portuguese)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 112 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated PG
* Animated Shorts
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site
* Clearwater Marine Aquarium