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The Independent Critic

Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff
Charles Martin Smith
Karen Janszen, Charles Martin Smith
Rated PG
113 Mins.
Warner Brothers Pictures


 "Dolphin Tale" Review 
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Easily one of the most entertaining family films to come along so far in 2011, Dolphin Tale is nearly perfect in the way that director Charles Martin Smith weaves together a sort of a retro-styled family format with all the advantages of contemporary technology and, once again, 3-D imaging.

Based upon the true story of Winter, a young dolphin who becomes severely injured in a crab trap and ends up losing her tail, Dolphin Tale may very well end up qualifying as Fall 2011's most inspiring and heartfelt family films with its themes of family, friendship, overcoming and perseverance. Centered around the friendship that develops between a lonely young boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble, Marley & Me) and Winter, Dolphin Tale is the kind of film that irritates many film critics with its unrelenting sentimentality and gooey goodness. But, even the most hardened critic is going to have a really hard time truly bashing the film thanks to its excellent ensemble cast, inspirational messages and Karl Walter Lindenlaub's serene and incredibly effective camera work.

Director Charles Martin Smith is no stranger to animal-themed films, having starred in and co-written Never Cry Wolf and directed The Snow Walker, Air Bud and now Dolphin Tale. This film is a film that will play best with young people, who are likely to absolutely fall in love with Winter along with Rufus, a rather hilariously obnoxious pelican who gives the film many of its laughs. Part of the reason that kids will love the film most is simply that Smith has clearly constructed it with kids and the innocent at heart in mind. So many of these family films do two things wrong - 1) They talk down to children, and 2) They try too hard to win over the adults. While Smith cares about the film's adults, it's clear that he's made the film with a focus on children and on making it for children.

Dolphin Tale is aided tremendously by its excellent cast, led by veteran child actor Nathan Gamble, who embodies early on Sawyer's sense of loneliness while giving the young man a sense of wild-eyed wonder as his bond with Winter grows ever deeper. Gamble serves up such a remarkably unaffected performance that one almost feels like you're watching a chapter out of his life, while newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff exudes warmth and spirit as Hazel, a young girl who works with the Clearwater Marine Aquarium that helps to rehabilitate Winter. While his character clearly plays second fiddle to the children, Harry Connick Jr. serves up one of his most winning performances as Hazel's father and the head of the aquarium trying to balance his love for the animals with fiscal responsibility. Similarly, Ashley Judd takes the relatively stock character of Sawyer's concerned mom and embodies her with warmth, tenderness and passion that brings her to life. Morgan Freeman shows up about halfway through the film as, of course, a crusty ole' doc from the local VA hospital who helps to develop the prosthetic that saves Winter's life.

The real star of Dolphin Tale is Winter herself, who appears in the vast majority of the film's scenes except in those cases where to have done so would have harmed her. In those cases, an animatronic look-alike was created (I challenge you to tell them apart!). If you've ever questioned the intelligence and warmth of dolphins, you will no longer do so after watching Dolphin Tale, which presents one of the strongest cinematic arguments yet for friendship between man and animal.

Dolphin Tale was filmed at the real life Clearwater Marine Aquarium, which remains Winter's home. As the film so powerfully points out, she remains a favorite of disabled children (especially amputees) who feel a kinship with this dolphin who lost her tail yet found a way to keep on living.

At its very essence, Dolphin Tale is best summed up by a small gift given to Sawyer by Kyle (Austin Stowell), a cousin who is heading off to war. The gift is engraved with the simple phrase "Family is Forever," a reminder for Sawyer that Kyle will be returning. Yet, ultimately, the real message of Dolphin Tale is that families aren't just families of birth but families of choice. There's a powerful scene in which Sawyer and the staff of Clearwater Marine Aquarium surround Winter and, in that scene, they all become family with one another and irrevocably intertwined.

Dolphin Tale is being released in both 2-D and 3-D versions, and while many of the water scenes are beautifully created it should be noted that the 2-D version of the film is just as satisfying. There are so few films anymore that are unabashedly sentimental, sweet, inspirational and good-hearted and Dolphin Tale is all of these things in abundance. Dolphin Tale is the kind of film that families scream out for, and one can only hope that families in great numbers will show up at the box-office this weekend to embrace Winter and her incredible journey of survival and love and wonder.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic