Winter is a real life dolphin who washed ashore following an unfortunate entanglement in a fisherman’s net. She was rescued, had her tail amputated, and acquired renewed swimming abilities thanks to a prosthetic appendage. The film takes this story and adds both a family element to the rescuers and a fictional protagonist in the form of a young boy who befriends Winter, is awakened to the wonders of oceanography, and just happens to have a beloved cousin in the military who is granted an artificial leg following an injury in the line of duty. The film is so sweet that it lacks a villain, the closest thing being a strict summer school teacher who receives no more than five minutes worth of screen time. This is pretty safe stuff.
Dolphin Tale is such a harmless, family-friendly outing that criticizing any aspect of it will reveal a lot about said critic. The script was written for children and their homogenized parents, which is fine, but it had me squirming in my seat for the majority of its overly long 113 minute running time. Animal lovers, like myself, will enjoy watching the dolphin though it’s impossible to differentiate between CG Winter, animatronic Winter, and real Winter. It’s understandable that supporting players Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, and Harry Connick Jr. have adapted their talents to the base subject matter at hand, but the performance by the young actress who portrays rescuer Connick Jr.’s daughter disagreed with me as much as her wise-beyond-her-years lines did. The newcomer’s name is Cozi Zuehlsdorff and I yearned for the calm, bearded face of her movie grandfather, Kris Kristofferson, every time she appeared onscreen. Throughout the course of the film I found myself hoping that she’d fall from high places, be eaten by Winter, and face decapitation at the blades of an RC helicopter Twilight Zone: The Movie-style (not so comfortable with that last bit, but it’s staying in for your enjoyment). Horrible things to say about a 12-year-old* though some people are surely of the opinion that there are no boundaries when it comes to film criticism. It’s your call.
The film ends with footage of a succession of real life amputees petting a sprightly Winter while tear-inducing music swells in the background. It’s either pretty powerful or downright manipulative. Again, it’s your call.
Dolphin Tale opens wide in Philly-area theaters today.
* Cozi’s Facebook fan page lists her as an “Actor/Director”. Her O.C.-based parents obviously expect great things from her…