Friday, September 23, 2011

Dolphin Tale

MPAA (PG) CNS/USCCB (A-1) Roger Ebert (3 Stars) Fr. Dennis (3 Stars)

IMDb listing -
CNS/USCCB review -
Roger Ebert's review -

Dolphin Tale, directed by Charles Martin Smith, screenplay by Karen Janszen and Naomi Dromi, is a nice family feel good movie based on the true story of a dolphin named "Winter" at the Clearwater Marine Acquarium.

The story begins with Kyle Connellan (played by Austin Stowell) a former high school swimming star, who's since enlisted in the Army, saying goodbye to his quiet 11 year old cousin Sawyer Nelson (played by Nathan Gamble).  Kyle's being shipped off to Iraq.  Sawyer's been withdrawn since his father left him and his mother Lorraine (played by Ashley Judd) five years back.  Kyle asks Sawyer to promise him that he'll do more than tinker around with his electronic toys in the garage.  Sawyer half-heartedly promises to do so.  Sawyer's mother is also concerned for Sawyer because he doesn't talk much to anyone and his grades are suffering in school.

One day riding his bike along the beach in Clearwater, Florida on his way to summer-school, Sawyer spots an old man trying to help a dolphin who had washed-up on shore.  The dolphin had gotten hopelessly tangled in the lines that had suspended a crab trap.  With help of Sawyer's cell phone the old man manages to call a marine animal rescue unit, headed by Dr. Clay Haskett (played by Harry Connick, Jr) and his assistant Phoebe (played by Austin Highsmith).  Together with Dr. Clay's more talkative 11 year old daughter, Hazel ("like the eyes") Hasket (played by Cozi Huehlsdorff), they take the dolphin to the Clearwater Marine Animal Sanctuary.  There Hazel names the injured dolphin "Winter" because every dolphin she's named after a time-of-year "turned out okay."

But Winter's not okay.  Her tail had been cut by the crab-trap lines and had become infected.  Eventually, the tail has to be amputated.  In the meantime, quiet Sawyer begins to ditch summer school in favor of visiting the dolphin, who takes a liking to him because apparently he was the first to begin freeing her from the crab trap's lines.  Sawyer's ditching of summer school at first irritates both his mom and his teacher, Mr Doyle (played by Ray McKinnon).  However, his mom comes to appreciate that this is the first time that Sawyer's become interested in anything outside of his electronic gadgets since his father (and her husband) had left them.  So against Mr. Doyle's advice, she lets Sawyer go to the sanctuary rather than to summer school.

The story gets more complex as two things happen:  First, Kyle comes home injured from a blast in the war.  He didn't lose a limb, but one of his leg is damaged enough that he will need a brace to walk on it again.  When he returns home, it is he who doesn't want to talk to anybody, preferring to retreat back to the local VA hospital rather than visit with his family and friends at a "welcome home party" that they organized for him.  Second, while Winter has relearned to swim (sort of) without her tail, it becomes clear that the side-to-side (rather than normal up-and-down) motions of her tail are causing damage to her vertebrae and if she continues to do so, she will slowly driver herself into paralysis and death.  It is Sawyer, who visiting his injured cousin at the VA hospital who puts two and two together asking Dr. Cameron McCarthy (played by Morgan Freeman) who fits various injured vets with their prosthetics and braces, "a stupid question": Could he design a prosthetic tail for the dolphin?  Seeing the child's sincerity, Dr. McCarthy decides to take-up the challenge.

The rest of the movie follows ... An aspect of this movie that I found very touching was that as both Sawyer and Dr. McCarthy encounter apathy or even opposition to their project (What's the use?  It probably won't work.  And she's only a dolphin...) repeatedly everyone is reminded that to all kinds of people with disabilities or in need of prosthetics themselves, Winter has become a hero.

In one case, a mother shows-up one evening after closing time with her daughter to the sanctuary and asks if her daughter could see Winter.  The sanctuary's already closed, and other things (including financial matters) are on the staff's minds.  So they're not thrilled.  But the mother insists, saying that ever since her daughter found out about the dolphin on the internet, it's all she's been talking about.  So they had driven 10 hours from Atlanta (to the Tampa-St. Petersburg area where Clearwater is) to see the dolphin.  The staff relents.  The mother then opens the door of her van and we see that her cute as can be 10-year-old daughter too needed a wheel chair and had lost a leg as well.

Obviously the whole story ends well and yes the movie is rather formulaic in parts.  Still, I do believe it is a really nice "feel good" movie and a reminder to us all that we all contribute to each other's lives.  Kyle encouraged Sawyer to "get out of his shell" at the beginning of the movie, even as he was heading off to Iraq.  In part because Sawyer followed Kyle's advice, he was ready to help Kyle in a surprising way (having befriended a disabled dolphin) when Kyle came back injured from the war.

Hovering over the whole story are also two "grandparent figures," Morgan Freeman's character, Dr. McCarthy already mentioned above and also Hazel's grandfather Reed (played by Kris Kristofferson) who use their life experience to encourage the youngsters in their dreams and at times gently chastising (in Catholic speak, "guilting"... ;-) the parents into believing more in the value of the "stupid ideas" that their children keep coming-up with.

It's just a lovely family movie all around.  There's very little that any Catholic parent would find problematic in this film.  Some of the more spiritual musings in the movie, may feel to some to be "new agey."  You may well be right, but just let it go.  Dolphins are God's creatures and throughout history people (even the most hardened of sailors) have always marveled  how they love to play. 

Note to those interested: Winter's official website at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, FL is

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