When Can I Watch 'Dolphin Tale' With My Kids?

When Can I Watch 'Dolphin Tale' With My Kids?

Sep 20, 2011

We came up with the When Can I Watch With My Kids column as a means to commemorate the films that inspired us as fledgling movie lovers. We wanted parents to have their own place to discuss when it would be best to take live-action films off of the shelves and start sharing them with our own children. 
But every once in a while, a film comes along that’s likely going to inspire a trip to the theater, and so we stray from the column’s primary objective and ask when you can see a new release with your kids. 
Dolphin Tale is one of those films that, I think, will resonate with families looking for a day (or evening) out this week. For starters, parents seem so starved for movie options that they’re willing to fork over hard-earned cash to see the 17-year-old Lion King in theaters – even though they no doubt have at least two copies of the film sitting at home on a DVD shelf. 
Second, Dolphin Tale tells a true story – and a miraculous one, at that – of perseverance and hope, with all sorts of teachable moments built in to its premise. And lastly, it’s pretty darn good.
So, let’s fashion ourselves with artificial tails, hire Morgan Freeman to play a wise, motivated father figure for the umpteenth time in his career, and figure out when you can watch Dolphin Tale with your kids.
Red Flags: You Will Believe A Dolphin Can … Swim?
Winter the dolphin’s story was a complete mystery. I missed the CNN profile, the “Today Show” segments and the countless newspaper articles documenting this dolphin’s amazing story. This absolutely worked to my advantage while watching Charles Martin Smith’s accessible family film, because I honestly didn’t know where it was going and was surprised by a few of the film’s plot developments.
But there are subplots, and issues, that I think are important for parents to understand before they bring their youngest children to what looks like a Disney Channel movie but is capable of being much more.  
Winter, in case you didn’t know, washed up on a beach near Tampa, Fla., and was rescued by marine biologists at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Yet while they were able to resuscitate the dolphin, they couldn’t save her tail, which was badly damaged by crab nets and had to be amputated. Winter plays herself in the film, meaning the dolphin you see on screen for the bulk of the film has a stub where her glorious, aerodynamic tail should be. 
As Smith’s drama details the work that went into fashioning Winter with an artificial limb, so to speak, Dolphin Tale takes a relevant turn toward wounded military veterans who are returning from the Middle East, only to find themselves learning how to operate with artificial limbs of their own. Now, the PG-rated Dolphin Tale doesn’t go so far as to delve into the horrors of war and the sacrifices made on a battlefield. But we do follow Kyle (Austin Stowell), a champion swimmer and role model for main character Sawyer (Nelson Gamble) who heads off to the Middle East to defend our country and comes back missing a leg. Dolphin Tale plays the stories of Kyle and his hospitalized military brethren for inspiration, suggesting Winter encouraged these men and women to rise up and persevere. Yet the subplot could affect kids who aren’t prepared for the direction in which this sweet dolphin story eventually heads. 
One other sequence stands out for its sudden and unexpected brutality. A hurricane descends on Florida’s Gulf coast near the middle of the film. The team working on Winter batten down the hatches, and the storm hits with severity. The aftermath, as captured by Smith, actually made my seven-year-old, P.J., say aloud, “Whoa.” It’s devastating. Realistic, of course, but the film’s production designers also don’t pull any punches when showing the sheer strength of Mother Nature. It feeds the underlying current of uncertainty in the film, reminding us that we never really know when deadly force will enter our world, and we might be left missing something once the full impact is felt. 
There are other “Red Flags,” so to speak. Outside of a beautiful opening sequence, the 3D is unnecessary and can be avoided. Also, when it comes to Sawyer’s schooling, he’s failing, requires summer school, yet can’t stay focused enough to actually attend class. And even though this is a Warner Bros. film, the studio steals from Disney’s playbook by giving the two main kids single parents (Ashley Judd and Harry Connick Jr., respectively), because for reasons I’ll never understand, healthy marriages are frowned upon in mainstream family entertainment. 
Green Lights: A Whale of a Tale
If the “Red Flags” surrounding Dolphin Tale are a little out of the ordinary -- focusing on the difficult rehabilitation efforts of a plucky dolphin, as well as those of our military’s men and women -- then the “Green Lights” feel far more conventional. 
There’s a subplot involving Judd’s mother bending her internal rules to show support for her son’s newfound interest in marine biology that’s sweeter than expected. It’s a nice reminder for parents that sometimes “doing the right thing” and “doing the right thing for your child” are different, and the latter is necessary once in a while. 
Also, Morgan Freeman makes a late-game appearance as the biomedical engineer recruited by young Sawyer and the Clearwater doctors to fashion an artificial tail on Winter’s stump. Needless to say, Freeman purrs in that reassuring tone of his that such a task would be impossible, and only a fool would try. Think her tries (and even succeeds)? 
I mentioned the film’s cavalier approach to school in the “Red Flags” section, but want to bring it up one more time here to turn the argument on its head slightly and view it from a different angle. 
During the closing of Dolphin Tale, Smith wisely includes actual footage of Winter interacting with wounded children and soldiers who found inspiration in this dolphin’s miraculous achievements. And then the film advertises www.SeeWinter.com, the dolphin’s official Web site, where kids can read her a story, send her messages, and “visit” her daily using three strategically placed Web cams. My boys couldn’t get on a laptop fast enough when we got home following our Tale screening. We spent some time surfing the site. We branched out and found audio of dolphin’s “speaking,” and surfed YouTube clips on dolphin behavior. It made Dolphin Tale an interactive experience, so be ready to bring the film home with you, where its lessons and messages can continue long after the movie concludes.     
Appropriate Age
Because of the potentially heavy and emotionally taxing material of the film’s subplots, I’m leaning a little bit older on Dolphin Tale
My 7-year-old son loved the story, actively followed Winter’s progress, understood Kyle’s plight, and was anxious to research the dolphin’s story further. And while nothing actually disturbed by 3-year-old (thankfully), I’m not sure he knew exactly what was going on in the film’s middle passages, when storylines were advanced at the expense of dolphin action. 
Smith does try to temper that exposition with little-kid tricks (a pelican who comes and goes for comic relief, for example), and it’s enough to entertain the youngest who go because the whole family’s checking out Tale. But the film will work best for 7-year-olds and up. Just skip the 3D, and save a few bucks. 
If you’d like to read previous entries in the "When Can I Watch That With My Kids?" series, click right here. Some of the films covered: Star Wars, Back to the Future, The Goonies, Lucas, The Monster Squad and The Sound of Music, to name just a few.

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