Three things that make everybody happy: Christmas, ice cream and dolphins. A delightful new family film called Dolphin Tale is not a Christmas story, but you get everything else, and the way things are going at the movies these days, two out of three ain’t bad.
This is the kind of movie with end credits for days, post-production edits for years and nobody cares. What matters is how lovable the dolphin is, and on that score everyone can rest easy. The star of this unbelievably heroic true story is a real-life female dolphin named Winter who, while swimming off the Florida coast as a baby six years ago, got trapped in a lobster cage and washed to shore, tied in fishermen ropes, her tail fin severely damaged, and unable to move. Near death and struggling to breathe, she was discovered on the beach by a shy, lonely 11-year-old boy named Sawyer Nelson, then rescued and transported by ambulance to the Clearwater Marine Hospital and Aquarium by a dedicated veteran marine biologist, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), who spent years trying to teach the injured dolphin how to swim again.
Sadly, Winter eventually lost the fight and her tail was amputated. But her story was just beginning. The movie chronicles the struggles of a valiant animal who wouldn’t give up, and the people who became her family in the fight for survival. The greatest miracle of all is the meticulous research and painstaking laboratory testing by a brilliant prosthetics inventor, Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), that eventually led to Winter’s recovery. The revolutionary tail that acts as a rudder is a custom-fitted silicon-gel sleeve that now serves as a model for physically challenged humans and marine life throughout the world. The names have been changed and some of the situations invented to make a more emotionally satisfying movie, but the facts are well documented and Winter is still swimming up a storm with her new tail in Clearwater, where she is a big tourist attraction, a symbol of courage and determination for millions, and an inspiration for disabled men, women, children and fish alike.
Winter’s rehab is long and arduous, but she never forgets Sawyer, the boy who freed her (played by Nathan Gamble), or his new friend Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who lives on a houseboat with her father (Connick) and grandfather (Kris Kristofferson). The two kids in the movie who bond through their passion for dolphins are excellent, as well as the adults, including Ashley Judd, as Sawyer’s mother, and Frances Sternhagen, as the board member who fights to save the marine hospital from being closed by the state and sold to a hotel developer. After a hurricane, so much property is destroyed that homes are found for all of the animals except Winter, and the decision is made to put the dolphin down. It’s the children who come up with a plan to save their beloved friend and the hospital, too, by launching their own website and selling tickets to see the miracle dolphin in action on the Internet. Everyone is transported and transformed, including Sawyer’s cousin, a former swimming champ who has lost the use of one leg in the U.S. Army. The movie often seems too good to be true, but by the end I wanted a dolphin just like Winter for my own swimming pool.
The director is Charles Martin Smith, best known as the actor who worked with wolves in the 1983 film Never Cry Wolf. He’s also directed horror films, but clearly he works better with animals than people. Anyone fascinated with the phenomenon of how dolphins rank second only to golden retrievers in their boundless ability to bond with humans will be bowled over by this movie. I saw it in a Sunday afternoon preview with an audience of children who were completely enraptured. No wonder. As the first dolphin in history who has ever survived without a tail, Winter is friendly, loving, emotional, playful, brave and intelligent. Before her Dolphin Tale is over, I dare even the most jaded cynic not to shed a tear of admiration and joy.