** (out of 5)
September 23, 2011
Harry Connick Jr. as DR. CLAY HASKETT
Ashley Judd as LORAINE NELSON
Nathan Gamble as SAWYER NELSON
Kris Kristofferson as REED HASKETT
Cozi Zuehlsdorff as HAZEL HASKETT
Morgan Freeman as DR. CAMERON MCCARTHY
Directed by: Charles Martin Smith
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
Over the years, I’ve reviewed hundreds of movies, and I’ve been exposed to dozens of types of movies. Depending on the film, how it is presented and how it is released, I am sometimes harder on it, and under other circumstances, I’m more kind. For example, a micro-budget Syfy Original Movie with rubber suit effects and bad CGI is never going to compare to “Avatar,” so you can’t judge it that way.
I’ve seen a lot of these inspirational family movies, and most of them show up as a direct-to-DVD release (or damn near direct-to-DVD because their release was so miniscule by a struggling independent label) or on a weekend movie slot on the ABC Family network. When I look at movies like this – such as “A Plumm Summer” or “Ace Ventura Jr.” – I take into consideration they didn’t have massive studio support behind them.
And were “Dolphin Tale” released direct to video like the latest installment in the “Free Willy” franchise starring Bindi the Jungle Girl (aka Steve Irwin’s kid), I think I would have liked it much better. All of its foibles would have been forgiven. But as a major studio release with major stars, given a wide release and presented in 3D no less, “Dolphin Tale” comes up short.
Based on the true story of Winter the Dolphin (and starring her in the title role), “Dolphin Tale” is about a wayward eleven-year-old boy named Sawyer, who is dealing with a broken home and failing grades. One day on the way home from summer school, he encounters a beached dolphin. A team from a marine hospital show up to take the dolphin away, and against their hopes, they have to amputate her tail due to an infection. Things look grim for Winter, who faces certain death – even in captivity – being unable to swim effectively, so the group finds a way to develop a prosthetic tail for her.
This core element of the story – the battle of Winter to survive – is sweet, touching and quite extraordinary. However, like most overwritten family dramas, the movie tries too hard to cram in messages and side stories that we lose sight of the main one.
“Dolphin Tale” gets bogged down with the family drama of Sawyer, his broken home and his difficult time in school. There’s an additional side-story of Sawyer’s cousin who is injured in the Army and must face his own handicap struggle. I understand how all of this ties in, but it gets to be too much. These and other elements raise the level of cheese to that of a white trash Velveeta casserole.
In the end, this movie should be about Winter, not about the humans helping her. But the movie never allows itself to do that. Even when Winter is the spotlight, it becomes Sawyer’s movie, and I suppose that’s okay for eleven-year-old kids in the audience who can identify with him. I took my eight-year-old son to the film, and he loved it, as I would expect.
“Dolphin Tale” is a button-pusher, but it’s extremely heavy-handed in this approach. There’s such predictability and corny “golly, isn’t that amazing how that worked out” moments that I lost interest.
And finally, there’s the 3D presentation, which was unnecessary for a movie like this. Sure, the scant moments of Winter swimming in the ocean look cool, but most of the film involves people sitting or standing in various places – whether it be a living room, a boat deck or in a dolphin tank – talking to each other.
An overall neat story, “Dolphin Tale” is over-written and over-long, and it loses sight of its own star.