Sugar-Coated 'Dolphin Tale' Flounders

Dolphin Tale -- Dir. Charles Martin Smith (Warner Bros.) -- 2 Stars

Courtesy Warner Bros.

Nathan Gamble plays Sawyer, a young boy who rescues Winter, a dolphin that is missing its tail, in “Dolphin Tale.”

For a movie that centers around a fish, there are an awful lot of emotional close-ups of human faces in “Dolphin Tale.” Too much of the movie consists of the ensemble cast—including Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, and Morgan Freeman—seemingly trying their hardest to teach the film’s young audience how to convey facial expressions of anxiety, bewilderment, despair, determination, awe, and jubilation. These images represent the main problem with this well-intentioned film: director Charles Martin Smith injects too many life lessons and tear-jerking moments into a movie that is at its most inspiring when it merely captures its protagonist swimming happily in the water. Although “Dolphin Tale” is at points very likeable and artfully filmed, it is eventually doomed by the simple fact that it is a heavy-handed melodrama that clumsily exploits a storyline about a dolphin who loses his tail.

“Dolphin Tale” follows a nondescript Floridian young boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), who—like all other young male protagonists—is searching for an adventure. When he helps cut loose an ensnared dolphin on the beach and in the process meets a cute girl, he suddenly transforms into a passionate marine lover who skips school to aid the dolphin’s recovery. A day-to-day depiction of the progress of the dolphin, Winter, is evidently not enough to carry the movie on its own, and so the filmmakers interweave that story with moments of high-strung tension in the surrounding town. These scenes focus on the impact on Clearwater, Fla., of some of the dire crises that the United States has faced in the past year, including war, natural disaster, and financial shortcomings. But each new, quickly unfolding calamity feels more like a diversion thrown in to raise the emotional stakes of the movie rather than offer essential plot development.

Moreover, the film largely dilutes the effects of these tragic happenings and thereby renders them almost meaningless. Thus, Sawyer’s cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) returns home from war with a useless leg, but is otherwise perfectly fit and spirited by the end of the film. A hurricane hits the town with force, but has little direct effect on the wellbeing of the protagonists. And the financial difficulties of the Clearwater Marine Aquarium—a source of continual anxiety and despair throughout the movie—prove insubstantial as well, for we never witness the impact of these supposed troubles, but rather just hear people talk about them. Throughout the film, there is a lack of funds but no poverty; there is crippling injury but little loss of health. In this way, “Dolphin Tale” attempts to touch upon many important contemporary social dilemmas, but instead cheapens each one.

The visuals of the movie alternate between gorgeous underwater shots and headache-inducing landlocked ones. The film’s 3D cameras do especially well in portraying water in all of its forms—the way feet wade across a wet surface, the manner in which reflected trees shimmer in a muddy pool, and how water drips, splashes, bubbles, and swells. Winter the dolphin and his undersea companions are also expertly captured in all of their exuberance—indeed, the movie’s opening montage will make many viewers wish they could see an extended IMAX feature about the deep at the Boston Aquarium. In one of the film’s best moments, a beautiful scene shot entirely underwater, Winter and Kyle swim and frolic together in perfectly distilled childhood exhilaration.

But the camera has much more trouble on land. In the film’s all too frequent close-ups, the sides of human faces often look shinier than Winter’s skin, and the background of motion shots often appears shaky or blurred. Taken together, “Dolphin Tale” offers examples of both the potential and the pitfalls of 3D cinematography, while not quite justifying the medium.

“Dolphin Tale” ends predictably, with its marine hero returning to the sea and lots of hugs and family bonding all around. But the payoff is dulled by the film’s saccharine coating of its drama. Ultimately, “Dolphin Tale” teaches that hardship can be overcome with determination and effort ... and a team of smart and understanding people who have a lot of time on their hands and money to burn. In the end, one suspects that a Morgan Freeman–narrated documentary about dolphins in their natural habitats would have felt less forced and proven much more compelling.

—Staff writer Andrew R. Chow can be reached at andrewchow@college.harvard.edu.

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