You were just a little surprised when the original Dolphin Tale opened in theaters with a more than respectable $19.2 million take on its way to a slightly higher than $72 million box-office run. While such a box-office take certainly isn't epic, it was a decent run for the $37 million film. Based upon the true story of Winter, an injured dolphin whose life was saved when the folks at Clearwater Marine Aquarium partnered with Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) and developed a prosthetic tail.
Given Hollywood's penchant for capitalizing on its successes, it's not particularly surprising to see this sequel arrive on the tail of its predecessor. It's also not surprising that the whole "true story" angle is played down quite a bit this time around with a script written by returning helmer Charles Martin Smith. It's hard to know what to expect from the story of Winter this time around, though having found the first one quite enchanting despite its flaws it is more than a little pleasing to me that there are fewer flaws this time around even if the story itself does feel less authentic and more Hollywood-driven.
Dolphin Tale 2 picks up a few years after Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) and the team at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, headed by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), saved Winter and in the process created a regional sensation that inspires adults and children and has allowed the formerly quaintish hospital to become a larger aquarium.
The movie starts off rather slowly as those of us who enjoyed the first film have to adjust to the fact that Sawyer and Hazel Haskett (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), Dr. Haskett's daughter, have grown into their high school years and the juvenile awkwardness that radiated out of every cell of their being in the first film is largely gone now. While Smith makes the ill-advised decision to give Sawyer and Hazel a PG-rated romantic tension that never goes anywhere, their relationship otherwise feels stronger and more convincing than it did in the first film.
In addition to caring for Winter, Sawyer seems largely tasked with teaching Clearwater's growing numbers of volunteers and, thusly, fending off the giggly flirtations of an apparent sub-culture of humanity known as dolphin groupies. Sawyer is also facing the big decision as to whether or not to accept a major opportunity to spend a semester at sea in a prestigious marine biology program. Hazel? In a definite stretch of believability, even moreso than a multi-million dollar aquarium trusting its volunteer training to a high school student, Hazel has largely become the public face of the aquarium as she leads shows with Winter and seems to be shown on every kiosk in the place.
While that may seem like a huge stretch in terms of believability, it's not a huge stretch in how it reinforces Dolphin Tale 2 positions itself as an inspiring and feel good family movie. Dolphin Tale 2, much like its predecessor, has a bit of a retro vibe going on and while there's no one here gunning for an Oscar there is a relaxed realism to the proceedings that makes Dolphin Tale 2 a warm and fuzzy winner.
Winter's life is good at Clearwater, but as everything kicks off it's clear that something is wrong and Winter isn't acting herself. It's not long before an explanation unfolds and the film's central tension, a need to find a female dolphin to pair up with Winter or risk losing her to a Texas water park, begins to play out. The story that unfolds, while not exactly a complex undertaking, nicely fills the niche' of family films at a time when there's not much for families in theaters. If you enjoyed the original Dolphin Tale, there's a strong likelihood that you're going to enjoy this follow-up that is arguably stronger in terms of both photography and performance.
Charles Martin Smith was able to get pretty much everyone back from the original film and, without exception, it seems like everyone actually wanted to be back rather than any of the performances looking like a money grab. Our two young co-leads, Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, haven't turned into Shakespearean actors here but they do offer more self-assured and emotionally satisfying performances. Gamble's is more relaxed than we're seeing from young actors these days, all of whom seem to be turning the angst meter up to 10, and it's a nice approach in a film that has enough warm and fuzzies without the performances trying to wring out anymore of them. Zuehlsdorff, who was just fine in the original film, has grown immensely here and turns in quite the appealing performance.
Harry Connick Jr. has always had a knack for playing the type of character who is self-assured yet basically human. It makes him believable as a doctor who could grow this aquarium, but you also believe that he stays mission-focused in a film that quite intentionally stresses the idea that they are a facility that rescues, rehabs, and releases the animals they serve. Kris Kristofferson is back and just fine as Clay's father, while Ashley Judd again doesn't have much to do as Sawyer's mom but she still manages to do quite a bit in the one-note role.
The photography is quite a bit better in this film with an abundance of impressive lensing of Winter and the new dolphin that will eventually arrive. There are other animals here, as well, including audience favorite Rufus the Pelican.
Animal advocates will, for the most part, resonate with the film's messages. As a film critic who also has a disability and is a double amputee, I found Smith's approach towards disability even more emotionally and intellectually satisfying this time around. While the glorified cameo of amputee surfer Bethany Hamilton felt gratuitous, for the most part Dolphin Tale 2 plants an intelligently constructed message of healing and acceptance. There are other amputees who show up in the film, but I think I may have been most moved by the closing credits shots of the real life Clearwater crew working with people young and old, physically challenged and not, so that they can experience Winter and the other animals. There is something powerful when you are physically different in that moment that you realize "Hey, I'm not alone" and there's an overriding them in Dolphin Tale 2 that we're not meant to be alone.
Charles Martin Smith himself makes an appearance in the film as the USDA inspector tasked with holding Clearwater to the federal standard that dolphins cannot be held in captivity alone and, if a companion can't be found, she will have to be transferred. Rather than playing this all out with faux dramatics and demonizing Smith's character, it's more a matter of function that moves the story forward.
Dolphin Tale 2 isn't a life-changing film unless, of course, you happen to be Winter or Hope or any of the amputees whose lives have been inspired by their experiences at the real Clearwater Marine Aquarium. If you prefer your films with more razzle dazzle, then Dolphin 2 will disappoint. It's a good old-fashioned family film with animals you will adore, people you will enjoy, and a story that will make you feel better during the two hours you're in the movie theater.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic