‘Dolphin Tale’ aims to warm kids’ hearts

by David Dixon

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Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

There have not been many family films this year that have solely been intended for kids. The most successful were animated fare, but even those were aimed to please everyone. Now there’s “Dolphin Tale,” a warmhearted and uncynical movie targeted for kids younger than age 10.

The star is not a person, but a bottlenose dolphin named Winter. The plot, inspired by true events, is an account of how Winter was able to survive after losing her tail in a crab trap. It is not a spoiler to say that thanks to several key people, she is now living a healthy life.

Such a premise will sound very appealing to anyone with a soul, but there is a reason why “Dolphin Tail” is primarily for children. The main human character is Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), a fictional boy who wants to help Winter. While he is not much younger than the group of friends in “Super 8,” director Charles Martin Smith decides to make Sawyer a fairly innocent adolescent whose downbeat attitude is forever changed not just by his relationship with Winter, but also by his bond with a funny, fast-talking daughter of a veterinarian (Cozi Zuehlsdorff).

Parents will find less to object to in “Dolphin Tale” than in “Mars Needs Moms” and “Rango” combined. In those cartoons, there were elements that were too scary for toddlers. Here, there is no villain to be found, unless a seagull whose mischief serves as comic relief counts. While there is concern about Winter’s condition, it is not explored in a disturbing way.

Another fresh aspect to “Dolphin Tale,” besides the casting of Winter, is that there are intelligent adults who play crucial parts in Winter and Sawyer’s lives. Most kids flicks portray grown-ups as idiotic buffoons, oblivious to everything going on around them. Those imbeciles do not hold a candle to animal doctor, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and Sawyer’s mother, Lorraine Nelson (Ashley Judd), because they are smart enough to take youngsters seriously and actually listen to what they have to say.

While it is refreshing to see a big-screen lark starring a real-life cetacean, there are a few flaws that cannot be ignored. A strange homage to “Apocalypse Now” makes no sense and Sawyer’s early attempts to skip school in order to spend time with Winter feel unrealistic.

Older students might feel less comfortable than their younger siblings if dragged along to see this silver screen production. That being said, there is an actor who provides wit for the more mature individuals in the audience. Enter Morgan Freeman as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, a man who tries to help create a prosthetic tail for Winter. He steals every scene he is in with priceless facial expressions, as well as terrific comedic line delivery.

“Dolphin Tale” is unapologetically sweet in tone, which is why it turns out to be a mostly successful endeavor. It may initially seem too juvenile for the ripe, but Winter’s story leads to some truly moving moments.

Information about “Dolphin Tale” can be found at dolphintalemovie.warnerbros.com

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