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by Laura Leon on September 28, 2011

Dolphin Tale
Directed by Charles Martin Smith

Based loosely on a real-life incident (and starring the real-life dolphin), Dolphin Tale is one of those movies you know will have its cute and even teary moments, but which you assume will be kind of schmaltzy, and coming to DVD by Christmas. Take the scales from your eyes (no fishy puns intended): Dolphin Tale is a surprisingly effective and very well-made film that deserves more than a gratuitous critical pat on its eponymous dorsal.

Directed by Charles Martin Smith, the movie is as much about resilience as it is about the team of scientists and civilians who fought to rehabilitate a severely injured dolphin. The movie sets up its premise by having us connect to the humans, mainly young Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a boy so withdrawn after his father’s abandonment and the deployment of his revered cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) that he’s almost catatonic. Having failed all his courses, he suffers through summer school until he happens upon the bleeding dolphin, and in the time it takes you to remember the theme from Flipper, the two mammals have bonded. Recognizing that Sawyer may be the key to helping, at least initially, the dolphin they’ve dubbed “Winter,” marine hospital director Dr. Clay Haskell (Harry Connick, Jr.) asks him to stick around. Clay’s daughter Hazel (an enchanting Cozi Zuehlsdorff), as effusive as Sawyer is taciturn, shows him the ropes, and before long, Sawyer has discovered his passion. Even his mom Lorraine (an effective Ashley Judd), at first enraged that her son has basically quit summer school, has to admit that she’s never seen Sawyer so confident and alive. So begins a summer of discovery.

In between incredible footage of Winter moving in the water (thankfully, Smith avoids cutesy pet tricks and just gives us truly beautiful glimpses of one of nature’s most amazing creatures doing what she does), there’s trouble on land. The hospital is broke, and a sale seems imminent. Winter’s adaptation to life without the tail that propelled her through the water, seemingly a great development, turns into not such a good thing, as it has potentially life-threatening repercussions. Sawyer’s cousin Kyle is injured, and his athletic dreams shattered, in a battlefield explosion. Upon Kyle’s return, Sawyer visits him at the VA hospital, where he comes in contact with veterans who sport a variety of limb prostheses. This gives him his great idea.

Dolphin’s Tale culminates in a show of support that underscores the sense of family and community that firmly bedrocks the action. In caring for Winter, Sawyer and an ever-widening circle of friends and supporters reach out in love, fellowship and profound respect for the creature in their midst. Throughout, the cast is spot-on, and I particularly liked the interactions between young Gamble and hunky but believably sweet Stowell. Again, kudos to Smith, and writers Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi, for letting the mysterious depths of Winter’s coal-blue eyes draw us in and wonder what exactly is going on in there.