The story of how Winter, a dolphin in New Smyrna Beach, Fla., lost her tail and became the star attraction of the Clearwater Aquarium becomes an adorable kids' film in Dolphin Tale.
No, this isn't how it really happened. But director Charles Martin Smith (Air Bud) wrings plenty of heartfelt tears and a few laughs out of this fictionalized account of how humans helped a dolphin survive a near-fatal injury, and how that dolphin became an inspiration to others.
Nathan Gamble stars as Sawyer, an 11-year-old boy who helps a dolphin that he and a fisherman find stranded on a beach, her tail wrapped up in the ropes attached to a crab pot. Sawyer, a social outcast who is struggling in school, finds new purpose in saving this animal. Cozi Zuehlsdorff is Hazel, the girl who comes with her marine veterinarian dad (Harry Connick Jr.) and a crew from the nearby marine hospital to pick up Winter, as they call her, and try to save her.
Sawyer fibs to his mom (Ashley Judd) and plays hooky from school to stay with Winter, who bonds with the boy who cut ropes from the tail that she eventually loses due to injuries. But as Sawyer's wounded-soldier cousin returns home from combat to a Veteran's Affairs hospital full of men who are being fitted with artificial limbs, the kid gets the idea to have a prosthetics specialist (Morgan Freeman) see what he can work out for the poor dolphin missing her tail.
Freeman does his adorable curmudgeon thing. Kris Kristofferson is Hazel's crinkly-eyed grandpa who looks, approvingly, on all the life lessons the little dolphin is teaching his son and granddaughter and her new best friend.
Dolphin Tale is a movie of cute scenes and cuter ingredients — the cranky pelican who rules the roost at the aquarium, the way Hazel and her dad live on a houseboat that looks like a Disney World castaways attraction. The melodrama kicks in as the marine hospital and aquarium struggle to stay afloat, battered by a hurricane, coveted by a hotel developer.
Yes, it was "inspired by a true story." The Hollywood version of this tale of rescue and rehabilitation tugs on the heartstrings and leans on Free Willy for inspiration. But the process of fictionalizing Winter's story makes it kid-friendlier and neatly ties the dolphin with the prosthetic tail to those veterans and others with prosthetic limbs she has come to inspire.
You'd have to be a little stone-hearted not to be moved by the message tacked on, here, one line, beautifully delivered by Freeman: "Just because you're hurt doesn't mean you're broken."