When I was an elementary school film critic, one of my favorite injured animal movies was Sammy The Way-Out Seal. It's okay if you don't remember that one. It was a Disney movie from 1962 and they used to show it a lot on television in the 1970s. I don't think it's even out on DVD today, just vintage VHS tape, that's how much nobody except me cares. Anyway, these two kids find an injured seal and nurse him back to health. They name him Sammy and he's "way-out" because after his wounds heal he instigates zany mayhem throughout the town.
Substitute a real amputee dolphin named "Winter" (playing herself here) and replace scenes of seal-induced auto pile-ups with huggy, warm-hearted inspiration and you have this movie. And that's fine. Animal-obsessed kids are going to love it for the same reason I loved Sammy The Way-Out Seal, both for the animal itself and -- maybe even more so -- for the way the movie presents children as having the power to rescue and nurture a wild animal and convince adults around them that the mission is vital and the consequences are manageable.
The plot -- "inspired by a true story," which means that there's a real dolphin but everything else is mostly manufactured drama -- involves Winter, a young female dolphin, caught in a crab trap. She loses her tail in the process but gains two eleven-year-old human friends who convince the adults around them to create a prosthetic so that Winter can swim normally again.
It's very sweet and earnest. That's the good news. The bad news is that it's also kind of dull and packed too full of superfluous stuff. Thanks to a closing credits montage of footage of the real people involved in Winter's tail construction, it's hard not to wonder how much cooler a documentary about her would have been. Of course, then kids wouldn't see it and they're the target market for this story. Before this movie came along Scholastic had already turned it into a viable kid property with a non-fiction picture book called Winter's Tail, so it was probably always destined to be told in a way that would prominently feature Ashley Judd and Harry Connick, Jr. whether they needed to be in on it or not.
But there's a middle ground. It's a tiny patch of middle ground but it's still there. And its name is Carroll Ballard. No, he's not a household name. He's a director who spends as much time between projects as Terrence Malick and his animal films -- The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf, Fly Away Home and Duma -- are intelligent, thoughtful and moving. If you've missed them you should snap up the DVDs and watch them immediately.
Another connection to Ballard is Charles Martin Smith, who starred in and partially wrote Never Cry Wolf. He's also the director of this movie. And he gives it his best shot, aiming for the same level of emotional connection, particularly in a scene where a disabled child identifies so strongly with Winter that she begs her mother to drive across state lines to visit the dolphin. There are also some visually affecting scenes that are reminiscent of the Black Stallion, wordless bonding moments between the young boy (Nathan Gamble) and Winter.
But then, on cue, the extra padding and unnecessary cast -- including Kris Kristofferson wandering around for no good reason and Morgan Freeman in a small role as the designer of the prosthetic tail -- and plot tangents about war vets drown out that quiet goodness and you're left with the lukewarm middle, neither crazy enough to support a way-out seal nor majestically silent enough to nurture a black stallion.