"Preposterous, trying to put a tail on a fish!"
OK, so 2011's "Dolphin Tale" throws every family-movie cliché in the book at us. Not to worry. The movie features a cute kid and a dolphin. And Morgan Freeman, Ashley Judd, Kris Kristofferson, and Harry Connick, Jr. You can't miss.
Screenwriters Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi based "Dolphin Tale" on a true story, and Charles Martin Smith directed it. Yes, that's the same Charles Martin Smith we all remember from "American Graffiti," "The Untouchables," and "Never Cry Wolf." As well as acting and writing, he's been directing movies for the past few decades, mostly TV movies, and in the process he seems to have become an accomplished if as yet lightweight director. "Dolphin Tale" moves smoothly, effortlessly along, and while some adults may get impatient with it, kids will undoubtedly find it appealing. That would appear to have been the main idea.
"Based on a true story" may be something of an exaggeration, by the way; what the filmmakers actually tell us is that a true story inspired their movie. I doubt that so many stereotypical characters and events could have occurred in real life. Or maybe they did. Life can be awfully unpredictable sometimes.
The story involves a dolphin that gets caught in a crab trap and eventually washes up on a Florida beach, where a young eleven-year-old boy, Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), rescues her. A team from a local marine hospital take in the dolphin, whom they name Winter, and try to nurse her back to health. No dice. The animal doesn't seem to want to live, until Sawyer shows up again to see how she's doing, and the two immediately bond. You see, Sawyer is a shy boy, quiet, introverted, and lonely since his father ran away and left him and his mother (Ashley Judd) five years earlier. Not only does Sawyer cheer up the dolphin and encourage her to want to live, the dolphin cheers up Sawyer and gives Sawyer a reason to become interested in life again.
Harry Connick, Jr. plays Dr. Clay Haskett, the head of the marine hospital and a widower; Cozi Zuehlsdorff plays Hazel Haskett, Dr. Haskett's eleven-year-old daughter; and Kris Kristofferson plays Reed Haskett, Clay's father. Naturally, Dr. Haskett is a dedicated marine biologist, willing to do anything to save the planet, save the animals on it, and maybe even save Mankind; Hazel is cute and adorable, talkative and extroverted; and grandpa Reed is a wise, flinty-eyed old codger. I warned you.
The primary conflict comes when Winter develops an infection in her tail, and the doctor has to amputate it. Dolphins can't swim without their tails, so what to do, what to do? Now, enter Morgan Freeman as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, who makes prosthetic limbs at a nearby VA hospital. Freeman enters the picture at the halfway mark and volunteers to make a prothetic tail for Winter. And you know the rest.
There are some small side stories, such as one involving Sawyer's cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) as a recent high school graduate who has always wanted to become an Olympic swimming champion. Kyle's story mirrors Winter's and Sawyer's story in its way, providing a modicum of depth to the narrative. Then there's the problem of the marine hospital running out of funding and possibly closing down. And there's an English teacher (Ray McKinnon) with a fixation on prepositional phrases. But these secondary plots are mere diversions; the real story belongs to Winter and the boy.
Look, one can hardly fault this movie on any level, despite the banality of the plot and characters. It opens with some gorgeous underwater photography. The dolphin and the two kids are cute and smart and adorable. Moreover, one of the disc's featurettes tells us that Winter played herself in the film. What more could you ask for?
"Dolphin Tale" is not only cute, it's sweet from beginning to end. Sure, there are a couple of tense moments, such as our wondering if Winter is going to survive his ordeal or if the humans are going to survive a Florida hurricane or if Dr. Haskett is going to find the money to save his hospital. But mostly the movie is about friendships, new and old, about bonding, about overcoming adversity through love and family.
The film grows on you. Oh, and a pelican steals the show.
An MPEG-4/AVC codec and a dual-layer BD50 bring the movie to Blu-ray high-definition in its native aspect ratio, 1.85:1. The filmmakers shot the film digitally in 3-D, so if you like the look of digitally shot movies, you'll like the picture quality here. To me, the colors look deep and dark, so dark that everybody in the story appears to have a very strong tan. Black levels are decent, the image is slightly glossy, and definition is medium-good at best. Again, if you like the bright, clear, clean, flat, soft look of digital photography, you'll like what you see.
Using lossless 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio seems a bit like overkill on this film, but it does produce a quiet, natural-sounding midrange for the dialogue and a good, taut dynamic impact for everything else. There is a wide stereo spread involved, too, and occasional noises in the rear and side speakers, such as during a hurricane and when the kids are flying a remote-controlled helicopter. Otherwise, it's all pleasantly ordinary.
The Blu-ray disc contains several bonus items of note, two of them animated shorts: "The Hutash Rainbow Bridge," about two-and-a-half minutes, and "Ormie and the Cookie Jar," about four minutes. Then there are two featurettes: "At Home with Winter," seven minutes on the film's actual shooting with Winter; and "Winter's Inspiration," eighteen minutes on the real-life Winter in the story. Following those items are a two-minute deleted scene and a three-minute gag reel.
The extras conclude with twelve chapter selections; English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish spoken languages; French, Portuguese, and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Finally, because this is a Blu-ray Combo Pack, it contains a second disc, a DVD, which includes the feature film in standard definition and an UltraViolet Digital Copy. Quoting from the packaging, "Flixter and UltraViolet Digital Copy allow you to download the movie to your computer and instantly stream it via Wi-Fi so you can watch on all compatible computers, tablets and smartphones." You must enter your redemption code by December 20, 2013, to redeem the Digital Copy offer. A handsome slipcover encloses a flimsy, double BD Eco-case.
If you thought "Flipper" was heartwarming, you can imagine how touching a crippled dolphin is going to be. Note, however, that "Dolphin Tale" is as much a film for kids as "Final Destination 5" is a film for adults. Kids will no doubt find "Dolphin Tale" charming, funny, entertaining, and rewarding, despite its being a tad lengthy at almost two hours. Adults, however, may be a little out to sea with it.