In 10 Words or Less
Tugging the heartstrings with filmmaking skill
Loves: Good inspirational films
Likes: Harry Connick Jr.
Dislikes: Cloying family films
Hates: Films that make me sad
Trying to find a family-friendly movie that will entertain younger viewers and not bore you to tears, once you've exhausted the Pixar library, is a definite challenge. Most of them are just too cutesy or too dumbed-down to be enjoyable for everyone in the room. That's just the danger when the focus is on people who find entertainment in boogers and farts (which, coincidentally, is the problem with most of the movies made for adults as well.) But sometimes, a good cast and a good director can make a film that might otherwise end up mawkish into a good time. Such is the case with Dolphin Tale.
Based on a true story of Winter, an injured dolphin, Dolphin Tale adds the story of Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), a struggling kid who finds Winter on the beach and acts quickly to save her,with the help of a nearby aquarium led by Clay (Harry Connick, Jr.) Unfortunately, the injuries to her tail force an amputation, which threatens her life. However, Sawyer has become fast friends with Winter (as well as Clay's daughter Hazel) and he won't give up on the dolphin, calling on a prosthetics expert (the always excellent Morgan Freeman) to help give Winter back her tail.
The story of Winter and her tail is just one of several surrounding Sawyer, as he is having trouble at school, he doesn't respond to Lorraine (Ashley Judd), his single mother, and he's troubled by the anguish of his cousin Kyle, who lost much of his leg strength in an explosion while in the Army. Meanwhile the aquarium is facing severe financial troubles and is contemplating a sale to a real estate developer, who would shut the center down to build on the land. Thus there's a lot of melodrama to work through, but it's cut by some overt comedy relief from the kids (including an unnecessary tour of the facilities by an out-of-control model helicopter), some old-school musical montages and a few saccharine-sweet moments with Winter and Sawyer.
Unfortunately, the bits about soldiers coping with the damages of war serve almost entirely as a way to introduce the concept of prosthetics, rather than a genuine plot point in the film. While it's understandable that the story of a boy and his dolphin is far more marketable than the awful experience of soldiers left forever scarred by combat, they could have possibly combined Sawyer and Kyle to positive effect, making the film into something important rather than just heartwarming. That said, putting any kind of spotlight, no matter the size, on veterans is a positive.
The other positives here include the cast and director Charles Martin Smith. Smith, who's best known as a long-time character actor and directing Air Bud, crafts a fine film from a script by Noam Dromi and Karen Janszen (Free Willy 2, A Walk to Remember), giving the film style that's well above the level of your average family film, even if the pace can be a touch slow in spots. It doesn't hurt that he's working with a roster full of quality, led by Connick and Judd, who are good as the head adults, who thankfully aren't forced into the relationship attractive lead parents normally get lazily placed into. The kids are better than average, but they still have some questionable moments, while you can't ask for enough Freeman, as he makes every line that much better.
If you're a fan of losing control of your emotions, make sure to stick around past the end of the film, as you're treated to documentary footage of the real-life effort to save Winter, as well as clips of Winter interacting with several people who are missing limbs, which put me as close to tears as anything in the film, proving yet again that reality can often be far more powerful than fiction.
This film arrives in a two-disc set, packed in a dual-hubbed standard-width BD keepcase (wrapped in a holofoil slipcover.) The Blu-Ray features a static main menu with options to watch the film, select scenes, adjust the languages and check out the extras. Audio options include English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and French, Spanish and Portuguese Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks, while subtitles are available in English SDH, French, Spanish and Portuguese (for some reason though the Portuguese tracks aren't listed on the box).
The 1.85:1 1080p AVC-encoded transfer on this disc looks fantastic, offering up excellent color (especially during the water scenes) and deep, consistent black levels, though skintones can be a bit intense in places. The level of fine detail is outstanding, despite some occasional softness in the image, which could be blamed on the source materials, as the look can get a bit dreamy in spots thanks to the underwater scenes and the bright Florida sunshine. Digital distractions are not an issue in the least. The only issue is the way the clarity of the image betrays the visual effects, as the CG dolphins are pretty easy to pick out.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track supplements clean, clear dialogue with an impressive mix in the surrounds, where plenty of atmospheric effects live, most notable the water sounds, which are very well-done, with nice directionality and some panning that enhances the on-screen movement in the water. The low-end activity is appropriate for what the film is offering sound-wise, and the score, by Mark Isham, sounds quite nice, getting good play in the side and rear speakers, giving it the enhancement it deserves. It's not the most ambitious audio presentation,
There's a bunch of extras to check out, starting with "The Hutash Rainbow Bridge" (2:26) which uses Connick's telling of the myth in the film as the voiceover to an animated version of the story. It's pretty short, but the animation is attractive. Ormie and the Cookie Jar is another animated segment that runs almost four minutes, and it's hard to figure out why it's on this disc (unless it played before Dolphin Tale in theaters.) A small pig, Ormie tries his hardest to get some cookies on the top of the fridge, and while it's amusing and competently animated, it's ultimately not very memorable (mainly because the reason for its presence isn't quite clear.)
The rest of the extras are more of the kind you'd be looking for, starting with the 13:22 "At Home with Winter." It's a traditional making-of piece, with plenty of on-set footage and interviews with the cast and crew, with a focus on the real Winter's role in the film and what it took to shoot in the real aquarium. "Dolphin Tale: Spotlight on a Scene" goes more in-depth, with a nearly eight-minute look at the film's opening scene, which includes CG dolphins and 3D effects. It does a good job of illustrating the challenges the filmmakers faced in creating real-looking computer-generated dolphins.
The largest extra is the 18-minute "Winter's Inspiration," which goes deeper into the real story behind the film, highlighting the men who developed the prosthetics, the people who have been helped by the developments and those who draw inspiration from Winter. If you saw the film and wanted to know what was real and what was fiction, the majority of your answers can be found here. The Blu-Ray extras wrap up with a deleted scene where Winter meets another dolphin for the first time (2:21) and a cute gag reel that runs 2:49.
Also included is a DVD version of the film, which has none of the extras on the Blu-Ray disc, and access to an UltraViolet digital copy of the film. Fortunately, unlike Sony, Warner Brothers prints access codes on an insert in the box, rather than on a sticker on the shrink wrap.
The Bottom Line
Dolphin Tale doesn't break any new ground in the kids-and-animals drama genre, but thanks to confident and skilled filmmaking, a story that does enough to keep viewers tuned in and an overall talented and likeable cast, it's one of the better entries in this crowded field. The Blu-Ray offers a handful of extras, a few different ways to watch the film and a quality presentation, but the movie may have trouble drawing repeated viewings in families with younger viewers due to some of the more downbeat elements. Even if they've seen it once in theaters, double check that they want to it again before making a purchase.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Check out 1106 - A Moment in Fictional Time or follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.