It takes a special cinematic formula to appropriately tug at one's heartstrings--I think it was developed by scientists somewhere before The Bicycle Thief and perfected around Terms of Endearment. In these days of remakes and reboots and recycling, I think we all know when we're being yanked around. Personally, a movie has to work a lot harder to get through my tough exoskeleton, and this movie nearly did it. Not at the end, where I have come to expect it, but peppered in the middle, leading me to conclude that Dolphin Tale works best when it's not actively trying to manipulate your tear ducts.
Anyone who was going to see Free Willy has seen it by now, right? Well, this movie might as well be the fourth movie in that series. If you hate children, big eyes filled with hope, and animals, you should stay planted in front of The World According to Paris marathon. All the pieces of the puzzle are in place--Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) is a young kid stuck in summer school, lacking social skills and passion to do anything but fix his toy helicopters. One day, he frees a beached dolphin from a crab trap, and can't get the experience out of his head. When he sneaks into the marine care facility the dolphin was taken to, the skeptical Dr. Clay (Harry Connick Jr) and his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) discover that the despondent dolphin only responds to Sawyer. All of a sudden Sawyer finds himself immersed in Marine Biology Heaven, where he finds his fire within. They name the dolphin Winter (starring as herself), and when she has to have her tail removed, everyone thinks she's a goner. Cue the Man Who Solves All World Problems: Morgan Freeman, playing Dr. McCarthy. He makes Winter a new tail and everyone learns a little something about believing in real life magic.
For those who have been hurt before by letting schmaltzy movies play them like a fiddle, this movie does the same darn thing, and it will probably make you roll your eyes. The feisty animal teaches people not to give up--like Sawyer's cousin Kyle (Ausin Stowell), a swimmer wounded in the Army. There is nothing subtle about the script, it's quite obviously wanting you to burst into tears at the triumph of the human (and dolphin) spirit. It didn't work on me in the places they intended.
The times I got choked up were the smaller moments created by the fantastic actors. Sawyer takes his mom Lorraine (Ashley Judd) to the marine care facility to show her what he's been sneaking away to do, and the enthusiasm he shows for tide pools and his new friends really got me. Ashley Judd perfectly radiates the relief and pride of a parent terrified her kid was doomed to live life without knowing what his passion was. And the underwater scenes of Sawyer and Winter swimming together were breathtaking, a nice love letter to the harmony of the earth.
Of course the movie is still catering to a mostly younger audience, so there are weird interludes that seem to be designed to wake the audience up, like a random helicopter-gone-crazy sequence that has absolutely nothing to do with anything. There's also an abundance of shiny, spinning graphics accompanying the sequence where Dr. McCarthy is trying to create Winter's new tail. The movie ends with lame dolphin CG that just meant they couldn't train the real Winter to do certain things, which took a little wind out of my sails. As an adult trying desperately to like the film, it was out of left field, although I'm sure kids will love it. And you'll probably feel like visiting the local aquarium afterwards.