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Movie Review

'Dolphin Tale': Is it in the tank for family viewers?

By Mike Giuliano

4:52 PM EDT, September 30, 2011

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Dolphins are so cute that many kids wish they could have them as pets. These marine cuties are too big for the home aquarium, so kids will have to content themselves with watching pint-sized characters nurse an injured dolphin back to health in "Dolphin Tale."

This family-oriented movie is so squarely pitched at very young viewers that their adult guardians may find themselves losing count of how many thuddingly obvious life lessons are imparted along the way. It's such a sweet-natured example of cinematic therapy that older viewers are likely to get over any reservations about its thematic obviousness and end up liking it too.

Although it's based on an actual case involving a dolphin that lost its tail and had to learn to live with an ingeniously crafted prosthetic tail, "Dolphin Tale" has been amply fitted with enough dramatic elements to ensure that it works as an inspirational tale. Most of these plot components seem individually justifiable, but in the aggregate they do make for a very busy tail, er, tale.

The protagonist is an 11-year-old boy, Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), in the coastal town of Clearwater, Fla. Living with his seemingly strict mom, Lorraine (Ashley Judd), Sawyer still feels glum about his dad walking out five years earlier. Sawyer also is bummed out about having to take summer school classes.

What amounts to the psychological rescue of Sawyer begins when he visits the marine hospital where the injured dolphin now resides. The hospital's kindly director, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), has assistants including his young daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff).

Just as Sawyer is upset about his absent dad, Hazel is upset about the recent death of her mother. This helps bring them together, but the immediate reason for their friendship is that they're both totally devoted to the injured dolphin, which has been named Winter.

Most such movies probably would content themselves with showing how two kids and a dolphin become friends and thereby heal mental as well as physical wounds. Ardent performances by the kids and, for that matter, the dolphin guarantee that the movie conveys its basic healing points. If there's not a dry eye in the house, it's not only because much of "Dolphin Tale" takes place inside a marine hospital tank.

Where "Dolphin Tale" threatens to go off the deep end is in how it bolsters its central story with an abundance of secondary characters and incidents.

One of the supplementary tales that nearly works involves Sawyer's cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), a champion swimmer who served in the army in Iraq and then returned from war with a serious leg injury. Although there are genuinely heart-tugging scenes in which Sawyer tries to cheer up the understandably morose Kyle in a veterans hospital, the movie relentlessly underscores the healing process parallels between the dolphin and the soldier.

Another plot-pumping element that seems a bit much involves the impending bankruptcy of the marine hospital. I don't know whether this subplot has a basis in fact, but it plays like a movie-manufactured bit of financial melodrama.

Likewise, while Florida is no stranger to hurricanes, the one that blows through "Dolphin Tale" seems to have gathered its winds at the conference table where Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi wrote the script. It's too bad that the screenwriters and director Charles Martin Smith don't seem to think the central story is enough and pad it with such contrived developments.

The supporting cast also makes sure that every lesson is imparted. Featuring Kris Kristofferson as a wise old sailor and Morgan Freeman as a wise old doctor who makes prosthetic devices, "Dolphin Tale" is brimming with so much wisdom that Winter and its human friends seem likely to be healthy in every season. Grade: B-

"Dolphin Tale" (PG) is now playing at area theaters.