Swim aside, Flipper. There's a new star dolphin in town, a female named Winter who lost her tail when it was tightly bound by the line of a crab trap in 2005. Her struggle to survive and to learn to use a prosthetic tail is brought to life in this inspiring, heartwarming 3-D story.
"Dolphin Tale" has a great basis -- the dolphin is saved, but loses her tail and must accept a prosthetic tail, or the motion she uses to swim will eventually kill her. (Although it is based on a true story -- Winter lives at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium -- that last part seems to be an embellishment.) But "Dolphin Tale" is stuffed with at least four distinct subplots, which seems like at least two too many.
The movie stars Harry Connick Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman, and child stars Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, all of whom are excellent. Refreshingly, Connick and Judd lack the buffed, plastic appearances of the usual movie stars, which made, for example, Nicole Kidman look ridiculous in the gritty "Cold Mountain." Even better, Connick and Judd play the single parents of the adorable child stars without the usual romantic pairing off at the end.
The 3-D effect is nothing short of awesome, with plenty of wonderful dolphin swimming and underwater play, complete with bubbles, dolphin clicks and squeaks and magical interplay of liquid light. Having said that, the movie is at least 20 minutes too long. Ninety minutes into it, with three of the plot threads yet to be resolved, the children in the audience at a Saturday screening audibly ramped up their activity.
The story starts in the seaside community of Clearwater, Fla., as Gamble, playing 11-year-old Sawyer Nelson, prepares to say goodbye to his adored older cousin, Kyle (Austin Stowell). Kyle, a champion high school swimmer, hopes to make the Olympic team, but enlists in the military to pay for his training. Sawyer's dad is gone, and single mom Lorraine (Judd) is doing her best, but Sawyer is devastated by Kyle's departure. Sawyer is failing his classes, and is bored, frustrated and picked on in summer school. When Kyle leaves, he becomes withdrawn.
Everything changes when Sawyer finds a young dolphin stranded in the surf, the line of a wire crab trap wrapped tightly around her tail. The marine animal rescue team that responds includes Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick) and his 11-year-old daughter, Hazel (Zuehlsdorff, whose fresh, freckled face bears more than a passing resemblance to Lindsay Lohan at the same age).
The next day, Sawyer goes to the marine hospital to check on the dolphin. As his secret visits continue, Sawyer becomes enthusiastic about dolphins and other sea creatures. First Hazel's father and then Sawyer's mother learn of and accept his involvement.
After some nongraphic but sad scenes, Winter's tail must be amputated, and she learns to swim with a motion that will eventually damage her spinal cord. Kyle returns home, physically injured and mentally damaged by the end of his dream of becoming an Olympic swimmer.
Meanwhile, the animal hospital is under severe financial pressure, which is worsened by the damage done by a raging tropical storm. Frances Sternhagen plays the practical board leader who reluctantly agrees that the land on which the hospital stands must be sold to a wealthy developer.
Appearing as Connick's laid-back dad is Kris Kristofferson. Morgan Freeman oozes avuncular self-confidence as a maker of prosthetic limbs. When he yells, "Swim, you stupid fish!" you can't help but laugh.
Although Sawyer and Hazel arrange a carnival that raises money for the hospital, it may be too late, as the developer hovers to snap up the land. A highlight of the carnival is a swimming match between still-recovering Kyle and the cocky high school boy who has vowed to break all his records. See what I mean about too many plot lines?
A kids-eye view of the movie was provided by Sam Butler of Snyder, a fifth-grader at Smallwood Elementary School. As the credits rolled, Sam said he liked "the whole thing," but later noted that a lengthy, visually stunning but insignificant scene in which Sawyer and Hazel fly a model helicopter "seemed kind of unnecessary. It was kind of a time-waster."
Exactly right, Sam. If only you had been there when director Charles Martin Smith was making his final cuts!
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Kris Kristofferson
DIRECTOR: Charles Martin Smith
RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes
RATING: PG-13 for mild thematic elements.
THE LOWDOWN: The true story of a dolphin who learns to swim with a prosthetic tail and becomes an inspiration for people with challenges.