When a film says “inspired by a true story” what you usually can expect is a diluted Hollywood version of a true story, and there is plenty of manipulated fiction in the new family film “Dolphin Tale.” But guess what? It doesn’t matter. The central crux of the story and the film’s marine mammal star, an adorable dolphin named Winter, are all real enough and are guaranteed to tug at the heart strings.
Back in December 2005 a fisherman in Florida found a baby dolphin entangled in the ropes of a crab trap, which had severely cut the circulation to her tail. She was transported to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in critical condition and she eventually lost her tail. With 24 hours, TLC Winter (the name they gave her) miraculously survived and learned to swim on her own, eventually with the help of a prosthetic tail that was developed especially for her unique situation.
Winter became a media darling and to this day is the star attraction of the Aquarium, becoming an inspiring symbol to children, adults and returning vets with disabilities.
The story is already a tailor-made film with loads of kid appeal, but just to make sure, the filmmakers (who also made the recent uplifting Sandra Bullock hit, “The Blind Side” ) have sweetened the deal with a great charismatic cast (including Morgan Freeman and Harry Connick Jr.) and a plot line that centers on a troubled boy, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), who finds hope in his empathetic connection with the amazing mammal.
When we meet Sawyer he is withdrawn, doing badly at school and has no friends. His mom (played by Ashley Judd) can’t seem to muster any enthusiasm in her child, who is still reeling from the sudden departure of his dad. When he happens upon the distressed dolphin on a beach his life begins to change.
After Sawyer sneaks into the Marine hospital to see how she is progressing he is quickly embraced by the friendly staff — a benevolent marine veterinarian, Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick Jr.), his rambunctious daughter, Hazel (newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and Clay’s crusty old dad (played by Kris Kristofferson). Freeman plays the agreeable doctor working at a nearby V.A. Hospital who takes on the task of designing Winter’s prosthetic.
While there is no doubt of a happy ending to this tale, there is still plenty of drama thrown in: Winter refuses early prototypes of her tail, a hurricane threatens to destroy the hospital and financial ruin may mean they can no longer look after the dolphin.
But the focus of the film is undoubtedly Winter. Apart from an animatronic version used for her rescue scene and some minimal CGI, she plays herself. Her affinity to people makes her the perfect animal star, and you would swear she knew those cameras were on her. The film is showing in the ubiquitous 3D as well as 2D, but apart from the opening sea sequences of dolphins swimming, there really is no need to spend the extra cash to see this in 3D. It plays just fine in 2D.
“Dolphin Tale” may be a formula Hollywood film, but this is a formula that definitely works, and when they switch to real news footage at the end depicting Winter’s real rescue and showing the kids and returning vets that are her constant visitors at the Aquarium, even the most hardened cynic couldn’t possibly leave the cinema with a dry eye.
KATHERINE TULICH has written about film for more than 20 years. A Sydney, Australia native, she was the film critic and feature writer for the Sydney Morning Herald, Australian correspondent for the Hollywood Reporter, and a guest critic on “At the Movies” with Ebert and Roeper. She can be reached at email@example.com.