by Greg Wright
Dolphin Tale is polished, inspiring, and moving. It seems there’s almost always room in our world for cynicism, but this film just about squeezes it all out.
That’s the post-screening blurb I fed the publicists who shepherded me and a dozen or so other journalists through the press junket for Dolphin Tale in Clearwater Florida, the home of Winter—the disabled dolphin who is the subject of the film.
Now… rewind to about 24 hours before that. Almost to a man and a woman (if critics can be so classed as such), the troupe of which I was a part was not expecting much out of Dolphin Tale, positioned as it is in the late-summer back-to-school dumping ground that historically features cinematic also-rans and never-will-bes. And when Hollywood gets its hands on such “true story” topics as this, well, the odds of hitting a home run are pretty slim.
But here are some things going for Dolphin Tale that Those of Us Who Should Know Better would have done well to take into account.
- The film is produced by much of the same team that made The Blind Side—another fall feature that surprised the hell out of an entire industry. Dolphin Tale even features some of the same character actors in minor roles.
- Director Charles Martin Smith, while neither a household name nor a cineaste’s pick for Auteur of the Year, has over the years been a student and chosen instrument of bona fide auteurs like George Lucas, Brian de Palma, and Carroll Ballard. And like the animal film master that Ballard is, Smith has himself chalked up one other animal genre classic: Air Bud. So while you might not peg Smith as the likeliest guy to direct what may be the best feel-good movie of the year, he’s at least got the pedigree for it.
- Kris Kristofferson as a grandpa + kids + animal star = Dreamer… or Dolphin Tale. Get it?
Still, nothing is ever a given in this industry—because so many things can go wrong between pitch and premiere—and lightning rarely strikes twice. Dolphin Tale nonetheless shook our whole jaded crew out of its stupor and left us enthralled.
For those of you who haven’t heard yet, the film tells the gussied-up story of Winter, who lost her tail in a tangle with crab pots, and was rescued by a Clearwater aquarium. When she was fitted with a prosthetic tail to save her life, she became an international celebrity. The film invents subplots about Sawyer, a shy pre-teen with a deadbeat dad, and his cousin Kyle, a local swimming champion who goes off to war and comes back disabled… like Winter. And when the story also introduces another subplot about a widower marine biologist and his chirpy home-schooled (also pre-teen) daughter, well… you can just imagine the saccharine waters this film might drift off into.
But it doesn’t.
And I can tell you precisely the moment it won me over, completely. But I won’t, as it might spoil that magical sequence for you. But go see the film, and I bet you a fin you can pick out that scene in a heartbeat. It’s an inspired, thrilling bit of filmmaking that invokes Ballard’s The Black Stallion.
I was also not only right but almost prescient about asserting that “there’s always room in our world for cynicism, but this film just about squeezes it all out.” Says Entertainment Weekly: “It’s a cute story if you don’t mind temporarily trading in your cynicism for a bag of popcorn.” MSN Movies: “If it doesn’t bring a tear or two to your eye, you might need a visit to the cardiologist to see what you’ve got in there in place of a heart.” The Arizona Republic: “Attacking a film like this for being a tad cloying seems to be missing the point. … It’s like getting mad at a dog for barking.” Rex Reed: “I dare even the most jaded cynic not to shed a tear of admiration and joy.” And these are not marketing quotes, but excerpts posted at RottenTomatoes.com, which earlier this year hung Soul Surfer out to dry.
Need we say more? Well, we could. That’s pretty much the critical consensus rolling in, and glowing blurbs abound. But we’ll (almost) stop here.
While I agree with other critics that the Motion Picture Academy will probably not be thinking of Dolphin Tale come time for acting nominations, performances are really quite excellent across the board. Young Nathan Gamble, who’s had some pretty high-profile minor roles to date in his young career, reminds me an awful lot of Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terebithia) and was a brilliant find to cast as Sawyer. The supporting roles are so understated that Gamble (and Winter, playing herself) have no choice but to carry the film. And carry it they do.
On the thematic front, Dolphin Tale fares well, too. One thread focuses on the willpower that is within all of us to persevere. That’s exemplified by Winter—who also, in real life, proves a daily inspiration for kids and adults alike—and amplified by the fictional characters of Sawyer and Kyle. “Just because you’re hurt doesn’t mean you’re broken,” Morgan Freeman’s doctor reminds Kyle.
The other thread carries a decidedly spiritual bent: the idea that we’re not alone in our struggles. As Dr. Haskett (the marine biologist, played by Harry Connick Jr.) contemplates the demise of his aquarium, his pop (Kristofferson) offers some marine insight, reminding his son of one of his favorite poems, “Sea Fever”: “‘All I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by.’ … Just because we haven’t got to where the star is pointing doesn’t mean it’s the wrong star.” And that kind of leads into the sequel, too…
I’ll just close with the best note I jotted during the screening: “You invest in the things you want to invest in.”
I said that. And I’ll say again: I’ve invested in Dolphin Tale. I think you’ll be happy you did, too.