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Injured dolphin Winter inspires the disabled — and Hollywood

MoviesAlcon IncorporatedFamilyHarry Connick Jr.Charles Martin SmithAshley Judd

CLEARWATER — Harry Connick Jr. reread the script to his new film, "Dolphin Tale," about a dolphin who loses her tail only to have a prosthetic one made for her, and got the studio on the phone.

"I had to ask, 'Did this really happen?' Oh yeah, they said.

"'Are you kidding? This dolphin really exists?' I was blown away by that."

"Dolphin Tale" is a fictionalized 3-D version of the rescue and rehabilitation of Winter, a young dolphin rescued after losing her tail in a crab trap near New Smyrna Beach almost five years ago and taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where she's been a star attraction ever since.

"The true story, the fact that Winter is playing herself, those were big selling points" of the film, said Steve Wegner, a producer with Alcon, which is filming the movie for Warner Bros. to release next fall. The movie stars Connick as the aquarium director, Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman and Kris Kristofferson.

"There was never any question that we'd use the real dolphin," said fellow producer Robert Engelman. "Winter has this incredible personality, and she's unique. Not having a tail, she moves differently from other dolphins. You can't fake that. No other dolphin could be her double."

So Alcon "hired" Winter, rented the Clearwater aquarium for the fall, turned to Charles Martin Smith ("Air Bud") to direct and helped build Winter a new tank. And Alcon changed the story, adding Hollywood elements to make it a more commercial family film. Real people were folded into composite characters, and children were introduced to make the film kid-friendly.

"Everything about Winter in the movie is true," Engelman said. "What we have added is a drama of a boy, a girl and a family. Those elements keep it from being a documentary." Winter's rescue, by kids, was staged on the beaches of Honeymoon Island, off Dunedin.

Nathan Gamble plays Sawyer, the shy, outcast (and fictional) kid who discovers Winter, "and she teaches him not to give up, because she didn't give up on life, even though she was disabled," Gamble said. Kyle, another composite character, is a disabled vet who draws inspiration from Winter.

People are inspired by the story of the dolphin who adjusts to a life with a prosthetic limb, Connick said. Their testimonials fill the aquarium's website (seewinter.com). Some even came out to be extras in "Dolphin Tale."

The Clearwater aquarium, closed since October to film "Dolphin Tale," had to be made to look run-down for the movie's fictional save-the-aquarium subplot. Alcon built a huge and Hollywood-quaint houseboat for Connick's character to call home; it will be left in the aquarium's lagoon when filming wraps in mid-December. Special gear had to be made to film underwater in 3-D, and an animatronic dolphin was built to double for Winter in some scenes.

On a recent Friday, Alcon filmed a race in that lagoon between Winter with her prosthetic tail and human competitors, another fictional subplot to make the movie kid-friendly. Hundreds of extras, many of them amputees, were hired to be at a fundraising-carnival scene, and for the race scenes.

So if you think it's another "boy and his dolphin story," Wegner said, you'll be surprised. "We really like that angle of how Winter inspires handicapped people, people with artificial limbs."

And that inspiration is what grabbed Connick, in spite in himself. He said he doesn't go for that "saccharine, inspirational" thing in movies. "And in 'Dolphin Tale,' there's a lot of opportunities to milk this stuff, to get super cornball."

"Look at this animal," Connick said. She's in that pool 24/7 "working just to stay alive." That, he says, would give anybody a new perspective on life.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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MoviesAlcon IncorporatedFamilyHarry Connick Jr.Charles Martin SmithAshley Judd
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