There’s nothing worse than a movie that starts off strong and then goes downhill. Such is the case with the new family film, Dolphin Tale. What begins as a decent story full of sweetness and sincerity devolves into an overcooked, manipulatively emotional tearjerker where the sweetness turns to cheese. Don’t be surprised if your attempt to hold back tears eventually turns into an attempt to hold back laughter.
Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) is a stubborn kid. His last year at school was less than stellar and he is now reluctantly taking summer classes. His father left his mother, Lorraine (Ashley Judd), a few years back and things haven’t been the same since. The closest person he has to a father figure is his cousin, Kyle (Austin Stowell), a swimmer hoping to one day make it to the Olympic games, but he’s about to head off to war. On his way to school one day, he finds a bottlenose dolphin washed up on shore, stuck in a crab trap. After a phone call, workers from the Clearwater Marine Hospital, led by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), come to pick her up. Because circulation had been cut off to her tail for so long, they are forced to amputate it, putting her life in peril. Sawyer, however, becomes attached to the dolphin, now named Winter, and will do anything to save her, which includes enlisting Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) to make a prosthetic tail for her so she can swim properly.
Dolphin Tale is based on a true story and, as such, it is inspiring. Winter, who plays herself in the movie, is nothing short of a miracle. A dolphin who loses its tail is destined to die, but thanks to a number of lucky coincidences, she is able to live. If she hadn’t washed up on shore in the precise spot she had, this story never would have been told. If she hadn’t met Sawyer, there would have been nobody passionate enough to put forth enough effort to keep her alive. If Kyle hadn’t gone off to war and come back injured, Sawyer never would have gotten the idea to make a prosthetic tail. It’s a miraculous thing that happened and the hard work that went into creating that tail for Winter snowballed into bigger and better things. The comfortable material created specifically for her is now used on injured soldiers in need of help. In the end, this movie isn’t necessarily about the dolphin. It’s about the effect the dolphin had on people.
For the first 45 minutes to an hour, Dolphin Tale gets this point across just fine in its own simple and pleasurable way, but then it seems lose faith in itself. Histrionic behavior begins to take over and discussions turn into overemotional speeches about being broken and not giving up. Before you know it, Kyle is back from the war and throwing a pity party for himself. At this same time, a convenient hurricane comes ripping through coastal Florida, destroying the hospital and putting Winter’s life in danger. Then, after the hurricane, a family from Atlanta drives down to see the dolphin and, wouldn’t you know it, the child is missing a leg. If the actual footage during the credits is any indication, physically handicapped people truly do connect with Winter and travel from all over the country to see her, but this movie plays it for all it’s worth. It stacks sadness upon sadness to the point where it becomes too much. Once Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), Sawyer’s friend, began praying to her dead mother, I had run out of patience.
Now, Dolphin Tale is sweet and it will work for many people, but when you’ve watched enough movies, it gets easy to tell when one really earns its tears and when one is misleading you into thinking it has. This movie is clearly the latter and its orchestral score, as soothing as it is deceiving, doesn’t do anything to help. It embraces the many tropes this style of film has, including the character, played here by Kris Kristofferson, that is given literally nothing to do until becoming the Voice of Reason in the end, which is precisely what ends up killing it. Dolphin Tale doesn’t have its own voice and when it does, that voice is too choked up by its own over-the-top sentimentality.
Dolphin Tale receives 2/5