Sawyer Nelson (Gamble) is flunking school. Despite the best efforts of his single mother (Ashley Judd) and champion swimmer-turned-soldier cousin (Austin Stowell), Sawyer just can’t engage with his school work, preferring instead to sulk in his workshop with a pet-project helicopter. After encountering an injured dolphin, however, Sawyer’s mindset changes as he develops a friendship with the struggling animal, named Winter by the daughter of a local marine doctor (Harry Connick Jr.). With the hospital running up debts and Winter’s injury again threatening her life, Sawyer turns to the prosthetics expert (Freeman) currently working with his cousin’s leg (he too was injured – this time by war rather than crab trap) and the dolphin’s growing fan base for help.
If it wasn’t for the fact that Dolphin Tale was inspired by true events, the story elements it shares with DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon would be inescapable. As far as the two premises go, the commonalities are uncanny: a young loner with daddy issues befriends a friendly carnivore with tail issues; together they form a symbiotic relationship and impact one another’s lives in unexpected and hugely meaningful ways, leading to the eventual creation of a prosthetic appendage and, ultimately, a national acceptance and celebration. Come on, all that’s missing are a few horned helmets and a triumphant John Powell score.
Where How to Train Your Dolphin differs, however, is in its undeniably old fashioned method of story-telling. Harking back to the likes of Free Willy and Flipper, Dolphin Tale feels very much like a throw-back to the 90s’ preoccupation with child/savant animal pairings. It is all very sober, relying entirely on the story’s own charms without feeling the need to riddle the script with child-friendly gags and overwrought morality. While I’m not trying to suggest that this is necessarily a bad thing – far from it – it is true that aside from some variably successful CGI and a rather pointless 3D conversion, there is very little to distract you from the narrative itself, for better or for worse.
For while Dolphin Tale is affable enough, boasting agreeable performances and a relatively smart script, it is hardly enthralling. For a film featuring both a hurricane and a dolphin under constant threat of death, the story is strikingly devoid of conflict and incident. A disapproving teacher is all but ignored; the hurricane barely impacts at all; and a threat to the marine hospital’s future is written off with that old children’s movie staple: the improbably repentant businessman. There is no clear climax, no contrived but consuming rescue attempt, just an uninteresting and disappointingly undramatic fundraiser. As one character proclaims, it just isn’t enough.
As inspiring as a story about a wounded marine mammal could hope to be, Dolphin Tale is a lovingly made and ultimately charming – if a little ornate – tale of friendship and determination. Though its depiction of true events does add an intriguing extra dimension to proceedings (the footage of the actual 2005 rescue is indeed remarkable), it might not be enough to hold the attention of younger children weaned on Pixar and Playstation. At least it wasn’t in the screening I attended.