The notion that behind every setback in live lives a potential rainbow is laid on a bit thick in "Dolphin Tale," an appealing family film that doesn't know when to quit with the uplift. In telling the true story of a dolphin whose damaged tail is eventually replaced by a prosthetic one (the actual dolphin it happened to plays herself), not a scene goes by that hasn't been precision engineered for its full inspirational, heart-warming value, which equates with some people's concern about what heaven could be like: The sheer goodness of it all might be too much to bear. This follow-up by Alcon Entertainment to its smash "The Blind Side" shares that film's focus on positive, well-purposed people doing the right thing and helping others out. As such, it will likely be embraced by a portion of the same public, albeit with the kids in tow.
Like many of the best animal films, this one is not so much about the critter in question as about the kids who love it. "Dolphin Tale" comes up aces in this department with Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a good-looking, freckled 11-year-old who's been in an unrelieved funk since his father took off; his mother Lorraine (Ashley Judd) couldn't be nicer but Sawyer is failing in school, has no friends and spends every second he can toying with stuff in his dad's abandoned workshop.
But his life changes when he discovers a beached dolphin near his Clearwater, Florida, home. Experts from the local marine hospital untangle it from a web of ropes before taking it to the facility for treatment, but its tail has been badly damaged by a large crab trap. Sneaking into the inviting clinic/aquarium, Sawyer becomes obsessed by the fate of the dolphin, named Winter, which seems to respond especially well to the boy's attentions.
Sawyer is quickly embraced by the hospital's staff, led by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), whose cloyingly rambunctious daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) is not only roughly Sawyer's age but doesn't have a mom. Also on board, literally, is Kris Kristofferson as Clay's old salt dad. Aside from some overdone comic relief involving a cackling pelican, this early stretch is the best in the film, as it sensitively depicts a withdrawn boy's emergence from his shell; Sawyer awakens to life, his own potential and another being's survival. It's a process Gamble's talents make palpable and intermittently touching.
After Winter is left with a stumpy rear after her tail is amputated, the doctor insists she needs a prosthetic addition to facilitate a dolphin's normal up-and-down propulsion movement. A genial, can't-say-no doctor at the nearby V.A. hospital (Morgan Freeman) obligingly signs on to design one, but Winter rejects the initial prototype. Then there's a hurricane, the destruction from which puts the hospital in such debt it'll have to be sold. And there's a subplot about Sawyer's cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), a hunky local swimming champ who no sooner joins the army than he comes back with a debilitating injury that makes him inconsolable. The dolphin, with her own disability, inspires him to shape up.
As agreeably made as it is by director Charles Martin Smith, who spent a lot of screen time with animals in Carroll Ballard's "Never Cry Wolf" and was behind the camera on the dog-centric "Air Bud," the film doesn't know when to quit. When it looks as though the Clearwater Marine Hospital is doomed, at the snap of a finger those concerned are able to generate TV coverage and stage a huge aquatic benefit to try to save the day. Kyle gets back in the water competitively. A billionaire real estate developer turns out to have the soul of Santa Claus. Winter gets a new tail supported by a newly invented sleeve that, as illustrated in extensive climactic docu/video footage, has evidently gone on to greatly benefit the handicapped and injured. The only set-up that doesn't play out like a Hollywood fairytale involves Sawyer's mom and Hazel's dad getting together, but perhaps that can wait for the sequel.
Ballard's influence echoes through the project, not only through Smith, but through the script, written by his Duma scenarist Karen Janszen, along with Noam Dromi. The opening CGI shots of dolphins swimming in the ocean create fears of undue fakery that fortunately prove unfounded. Performances are all on the sincere side with a stress on emotional positivism. The film will be released in 2-D and 3-D versions, with the former caught for review.