If the opinion of the boy in front of me at the screening has any validity, Dolphin Tale is "the best movie ever". While that might be a bit of an overstatement, it speaks to how well this inspiring family tale appeals to its intended audience.
Based on a true story, this film gets much of its charm from the characters, especially eleven-year-old Sawyer (Nathan Gamble). The only child of a single mother (Ashley Judd), he struggles with school. As a result he has to go to summer classes where, unfortunately, his grades aren’t improving. Then one morning, loaded down with a backpack, he comes across a beached dolphin tangled in a crab trap. After a call is made for help, he watches the animal rescue unit load the injured marine mammal into their transport truck. Then following classes, he races to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium to check on the dolphin.
Inside he runs into Hazel (Cori Zuehisdorff), the daughter of the facility’s director (Harry Connick Jr.). She sneaks him to the back where Winter, as Hazel has named her, is being cared for. The injured dolphin, who hasn’t been responding to medical treatment, perks up when she hears Sawyer’s voice. For the next week, the boy secretly spends his days at the aquarium, until his teacher calls home with a truancy report.
However, Sawyer’s mother has noticed a change in her son. Her once morose and quiet child is suddenly up and out the door without any coaxing. Against what she considers to be her better judgment, she allows Sawyer to drop classes and spend his time at the recovery facility. But despite his daily involvement in her care, Sawyer is stunned when Winter’s injuries fail to heal and her tail fin must be removed to stop the spread of infection. Without the ability to propel herself through the water, there is little hope for her long-term survival.
Later Sawyer’s family receives more devastating news when they learn his recently deployed cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) has been injured in combat. Coming home from the war zone, Kyle, who had hopes of competing as an Olympic swimmer, suffers both physical and emotional injuries. Even with the encouragement of Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), who designs prostheses for the soldiers, he struggles to see a future for himself.
Sawyer, on the other hand, continues to do better socially, academically and emotionally. Rather than isolating himself in his garage, he interacts with others and tackles big projects including helping his cousin adjust to his new life situation.
More than just a fishy tale, this aquatic adventure recognizes the sacrifices made by so many in the military. It acknowledges the desires of those with physical challenges to fit in. But with very little content other than the injured animal and her threatened death, what Dolphin Tale may do best is inspire young viewers to dream big and look for their own causes to become involved in.