Hollywood is full of films with stories that inspire us. “Rudy.” “Rocky.” “The Shawshank Redemption.” These are movies that, when you leave the theatre, stick in your memory long after the lights have come up. A new film opens this week that joins this short list: “Dolphin Tale.”
Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is a young boy living with his mother in Clearwater, Florida. His father having long deserted the family, he looks up to his older cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell). A champion swimmer Kyle seemingly has the world at his fingertips. But rather than accept the many scholarship offers he’s received, Kyle joins the Army. Feeling he’s being abandoned again, Sawyer is not happy with the decision. Kyle assures the boy he’ll be back and gives him a gift inscribed “Family is Forever.” With school out Sawyer happens down to the beach. While there he comes across a dolphin caught up in some netting. Soon the dolphin is rescued and taken to a nearby marine aquarium. Sawyer follows and soon begins an adventure that will change the lives of everyone, and everything, around him.
Based on a true story, “Dolphin Tale” is a smart, funny film that packs a solid message. The cast is strong across the board, with youngsters Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who plays Hazel, the daughter of the aquarium director (Connick, Jr.), giving credible performances. On the adult side, Connick, Jr. excels as a father figure for Sawyer. Kris Kristofferson offers sage advice as the elder of the family. Freeman, who really should be declared a national treasure, brightens the film every moment he’s on screen. But the real star here is the real star: Winter the Dolphin. Playing herself, Winter is a natural performer. The bond she develops with Sawyer and the others feels real.
Because of her run in with the netting, Winter loses her tail. Freeman’s character embarks on a mission to create a prosthetic one for her. As Winter’s plight and circumstances become public the aquarium begins to attract visitors from all over the country, with a majority of them being families where one of the members has a handicap. It is these small moments, when a child in a wheel chair sees Winter overcome her hardship, that the film is at its most inspirational. Director Smith, probably best known to film fans for his roles in “American Graffiti” and “The Untouchables,” frames the film handsomely against the natural Florida beauty. If I have any quibble it’s that the 3D is practically non-existent and doesn’t really add anything to the story.