Dolphin Tale is on the "Tail End" of Quality

Movie Review: Dolphin Tale (2011)
Summary: A story centered on the friendship between a boy and a dolphin whose tail was lost in a crab trap.
Spoilers: none

Dolphin Tale is based on the true story of “Winter,” a beached dolphin who plays herself in the film about her rescue and gives us the back-story behind how she came to gain the attention of her entire Florida community.

When young “Sawyer Nelson” (Nathan Gamble) wanders by the beach and finds an injured dolphin caught in a trap, he cuts her loose and a rescue is made. With Sawyer’s curiosity peaked, he begins to visit the hospital to check on the creature he
saved and becomes acquainted with “Hazel Haskett” (Cozi Zuehisdorff), the daughter of the animal hospital doctor, “Dr. Haskett” (Harry Connick Jr.) who is tending to her.

But Sawyer’s growing bond with the animal is equaled only by tragedy in his personal life as his grades plummet while the bad news of a close cousin’s injury in the war hits him hard.

Dolphin Tale is really just a play on words as it could have just as easily been titled “Dolphin Tail,” which is what the movie is obsessively focused on. Despite overflowing emotional reactions to an admittedly sweet and moving story, this may be a family movie, but it isn’t what it hoped to be. Dolphin Tale is on the "tail end" of quality.

When everyone isn’t dumbly grinning at each other and otherwise acting like stand-ins on the set of some daytime cable Disney program, we get relaxed – if competent – performances from our star cast who generate very little interest on screen. But the exception worth mentioning is Gamble, our charismatic young lead who is a newbie to the big screen, but who nonetheless exhibits a strong presence, as well as fine acting.  

Nathan Gamble with "Winter"

“Dr. Cameron McCarthy” (Morgan Freeman) is a doctor specializing in building prosthetic limbs. He is brought into the story when it becomes clear that Winter has lost her tale and that continued swimming with the stub she has left will only injure her spine and could cause paralysis.

In hopes of fitting her with a prosthetic tale, they are resisted by continually draining funds and time—and by Winter herself as she refuses to wear what unjustifiably devoted doctors made for her at their own out-of-pocket expense. But everyone trucks on. An animal must be pleased!

While my initial urge is to commend it for being a family-friendly movie that is unquestioningly heartwarming, in Dolphin Tale, we have the same problems with characters that are supposed to pass as people, but come up short. These problems are limited characters that seem to have little to do but contribute to a rescue effort. Is this even healthy? The cookie-cutter personalities are less convincing than a Mormon Church infomercial.

When putting Winter down becomes the logical thing to do in facing this peculiar set of circumstances, where are the rational people? They’re always the bad guys in movies like these, and in this movie, the bad guys are those who own the animal hospital, and due to rising expenses, threaten to sell out to give the healthy animals homes in other aquariums. Sounds logical, right? Well, that just can’t happen. Why? Because this is an animal movie!

It is for this reason that the film can’t help but be a tearjerker that is special based on its moving subject matter alone. This, however, doesn’t make it a good movie. The interaction of the characters has to do with a dragging story about a dolphin and little else. This is “family material” sure enough, but it runs a bit too far off the proverbial deep end.

Animal-lover or no, the film is a mildly tiresome effort to show itself special when nothing it can or does adds to its innate value as an animal admirer’s piece. If it doesn’t have you slain with excitement from the outset, it will prove a slow and lengthy ride with not much of a payoff aside from the occasional reach for a box of Kleenex. But hey, for some of us, that’s enough. I partly get it.


Grade: C- (2 stars)
Rated: PG (for some mild thematic elements)
Director: Charles Martin Smith
Starring: “Dr. Clay Haskett” (Harry Connick Jr.), “Lorraine Nelson” (Ashley Judd), “Sawyer Nelson” (Nathan Gamble), “Reed Haskett” (Kris Kristofferson), “Hazel Haskett” (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), “Dr. Cameron McCarthy” (Morgan Freeman)
Genre: Drama / Family