Dolphin Tale (2011)

Rating: ★★★☆☆ 


Starring:  Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd, Nathan Gamble, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, Kris Kristofferson, Morgan Freeman, Austin Stowell, Frances Sternhagen, Austin Highsmith, Betsy Landin, Juliana Harkavy, Megan Lozicki, Winter.

Director: Charles Martin Smith
Rating: PG

Running Time: 113 Minutes
Release Date: September 23, 2011
Home Video Release Date: December 20, 2011
Box Office: $72.3 Million

Alcon Entertainment, Arc Productions, and Warner Bros. Pictures.

Written by: Karen Kanszen and Noam Dormi.

“She really seems to respond to you…” – Phoebe (Austin Highsmith).

Dolphin Tale is one of those films that is really hard to not like and even harder to say something negative about. Sure, it is flawed and manipulative, but director Charles Martin Smith does a great job in keeping the story moving efficiently, the drama compelling enough for children of all ages, and the inspiring true story on screen impossible to not become engaged with.

While some liberties are naturally taken with the true story, Dolphin Tale focuses on the rescue efforts made for an injured bottlenose dolphin named Winter, who was unfortunately ensnared in a crabber’s trap, discovered by a young boy, and eventually housed in an aquarium off the Florida coast. The boy, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), seems to form an immediate bond with Winter, but Dr. Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), the leader of a local Marine Hospital, does not seem all that interested in having those not affiliated with animal care, play a role in the work of the hospital.

Dr. Haskett has a young daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who allows Sawyer to visit Winter time and time again and when Dr. Haskett and his team see that Sawyer and Winter have a bond, he allows Sawyer to become a part of the recovery efforts. All of this transpires unbeknownst to Sawyer’s mother, Lorraine (Ashley Judd), who objects when she learns that Sawyer has been bailing out on school to assist at the Marine Hospital.  Convinced to just come and watch how Winter responds to Sawyer, Lorraine is moved by the connections that Winter and Sawyer have created and agrees to let him finish out the summer assisting Dr. Haskett and his team.

There is not a whole lot more to offer regarding the setup for Dolphin Tale, the film moves along confidently and never strives to be anything more than a heartfelt, unassuming, family drama.  While its journey is transparent and obvious and the screenplay by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi does veer in and out of sappiness, this is all easily digestible and self-aware enough to not be overly dramatic.  I suppose the premise of a group of animal lovers nurturing and nursing a wounded dolphin back to health guarantees some level of sappiness, but how thick the sap turns out to be for you will determine how much of this sweetness you can stomach.

Morgan Freeman pops up midway through as a doctor specializing in prosthetics who provides a breakthrough for the team and there is a nice, calming effect Freeman brings to the proceedings.  I rather liked Harry Connick, Jr. here as well, reminding us that he is quite the underrated actor.  While Dolphin Tale is completely watchable as an animal rescue tale, what I most enjoyed was the interplay between the two youth actors, Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff.  Gamble already has amassed quite a career at the age of 13 and shows talents and gifts that bring to mind, both in acting ability and physical appearance, a young Josh Hutcherson, while Zuehlsdorff’s feature film debut is notable in how natural and at ease she appears in every scene.

At the end of the day, Dolphin Tale may not have elicited a galvanizing and rousing message within me, but I have very little bad to say about the film.  For families seeking out something that everyone can watch, and likely watch on repeated viewings, Dolphin Tale is a perfectly fine family offering.

Should I See It?


Harmless and very likable, Dolphin Tale never aspires to be grander than it truly is.  There is something a bit refreshing in finding a film that stays within itself enough to make the experience enjoyable for everyone.

Animal lovers, or those familiar with Winter’s true story, will likely find this adaptation of Winter’s story, as loosely based on real life as it is, to be nonetheless exciting and faithful to the basics of what happened.

Safe for virtually anyone and everyone in the family to watch.


The film does hover in and around some faith-based elements, which may put off those viewers who do not want religious tones mixed in with their secular movie watching.  This is not Soul Surfer or Courageous in terms of its thematic presentation, but if you look for it, those themes are under the surface.

I liked it, but was not really all that moved by it.  Some may view this as a shameless animal-in-distress movie, with no actual purpose except to play into people’s love of animals.  Those same folks might view this as manipulative and nothing more than a cash grab.

An argument has been made that this would work much better as a documentary, as opposed to a family film.  The “truth” does get a bit dicey when comparing Winter’s cinematic story to the real one.


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