Let's get one thing out of the way; all you really need to know about Dolphin Tale you learn within the trailer that aired in the weeks before its release. Somehow there was a dolphin that washed ashore without a tail, and some grownups and kids tried to help nurture it back to health, and Morgan Freeman (Invictus) helps build a tail for it. Aside from the shock of seeing Freeman in a family film, something I thought he retired since the days of Easy Reader and Electric Company, the movie is pretty cut and dried, right?
Karen Janszen (Duma) and Noam Dromi co-wrote the script that Charles Martin Smith (Air Bud) directed. Sawyer (Nathan Gamble, Marley & Me) is a fairly introverted kid growing up in Florida, or at least he's somewhat disappointed that his cousin, a high school star athlete, is about to ship off to Iraq. One day while walking on the beach he finds a dolphin washed up on the beach, entangled by the ropes of a crab cage trap. The dolphin, later named Winter, is taken to an aquarium where it can be cared for by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr., P.S. I Love You) and his staff. The damage the ropes did force Clay to amputate Winter's tail. And while Winter seems to function decently at first without a tail, the long-term damage done by her adjustment could prove to be fatal. Enter Dr. McCarthy (Freeman), who works on making prosthetics at the veteran's center where Sawyer's cousin has returned to, wounded from his Iraq tour of duty. Sawyer puts McCarthy together with the aquarium with the hope that Winter can get a usable tail so she'll live, even as the aquarium struggles to keep afloat financially.
Now I'm a fan of real-world stories being adapted for the screen and can find myself watching a family film from time to time, but there is something in the way that Dolphin Tale tells its story that I felt put off by which I think that lies in the creative liberty the film takes with the story. Sure, seeing Winter interact with amputees who make a pseudo-pilgrimage is nice and certainly heartwarming, but the personal connection that Sawyer is supposed to have because of his cousin feels shoehorned into the film and a little unnecessary. Speaking of unnecessary, I'm still trying to figure out what Kris Kristofferson (I'm Not There) is doing here in the role of Clay's father. I think there may be more shots of him looking down at what's going on in and around the pools than he has lines in the film, but he certainly comes in to provide the requisite sage wisdom to Clay at a key moment in the film. It is telegraphed from a mile away and while executed well by the performers, is sadly one of several moments that I think didn't have to be here. At almost two hours, seeing the fat still on the meat like this drags the pacing down to some degree, and the resulting payoff moment doesn't have the same sort of 'oomph' as you would hope it would.
The unnecessary plot events bleed over into the character backstory to a small degree also. Clay is a widower, and while Sawyer's mother (Ashley Judd, Tooth Fairy) fits the bill of a romantic lead, thankfully the film doesn't go down that road. But the machinations of trying to make any moment of substance be a remotely emotional one not only dilutes what the true moments of the film, but also distract you from the end result in the process. A leaner, more focused story would have solved this issue easily I think.
Ultimately, the story is worth taking a look at, but maybe as Francis Rizzo does in his review, is better suited to the real-life film rather than the dramatic retelling here. We apparently teared up at the same general moments and I think that if they stuck to (and were confident in) the story without trying to compensate with other things, Dolphin Tale would be considered 'very good' rather than just 'OK.'
The Blu-ray Disc:
Presented in 1.85:1 widescreen using the AVC codec, Dolphin Tale looks excellent. Black levels are deep and inky throughout and image detail is outstanding, to the point when you look at an X-ray of Winter's tail, you can clearly discern the text in the lower left corner of the print. Fine detail such as surface textures and facial pores are evident and easily noticeable when watching the film, and the exterior shots present a superb level of clarity and provide a multidimensional look at times. The color palette is reproduced well and flesh tones are accurate and all without noticeable over saturation. It's a great-looking film, that's for sure.
The DTS-HD Master Audio lossless soundtrack does what's asked of it, and makes for a convincing soundstage for a Florida aquarium. Dialogue sounds consistent in the center channel and requires little in the way of adjustment, and the ambient effects in the rear channels are fairly abundant and effective sounding. There is even some subwoofer activity during a sequence when a hurricane sweeps through the area. It does not juggle too much in the way of immersion, but what it does it handles convincingly and is worth the listen.
There are a few extras here that cover the basics of the film and production, albeit a little lightly. "At Home With Winter" (13:22) is the closest thing to a making-of look at the film there is, as the story is quickly recounted while the cast recalls what drew them to it. The cast also share their thoughts on the other actors and what it was like working with a dolphin as part of their shooting schedule. "Winter's Inspiration" (18:08) focuses on the real-life aspect of the story with interviews from those involved with Winter, from the aquarium handlers to the man that made the tail, who is an exact copy of Morgan Freeman, if Freeman were bald, white and Irish. The trials and tribulations in bringing her back are recounted with loads of handheld camcorder footage, and the gel used for the sleeve provides us with a human beneficiary. It's a solid featurette.
Things are pretty quick after that. "Spotlight on a Scene" (7:17) shows us the breakdown of the opening credit sequence, which was a mix of shot film and computer generated effects, and the respective challenges for each group, while the crew discusses shooting with the dolphins. "Hutash's Rainbow Bridge" (2:26) illustrates the fable that Connick's character tells in the film, while a deleted scene (2:21) shows us the results of introducing another dolphin into Winter's pool. A gag reel (2:49) with some flubs follows. The package also comes with a standard definition disc (from which the images for this review were taken) and digital version of the film that can be downloaded and played with a Flixster account which is like iTunes, except it's not.
Dolphin Tale is a heartwarming story that is retold in lukewarm water that's been in the tub for a while. It's a decent movie that loads of people will watch with their kids and perhaps enjoy, but there are far better family films on the market for your consumption. Technically it's a pleasant surprise and from a bonus material perspective it gets the job done. If your family enjoys it it may be worth a purchase, but I'd be willing to bet it's nothing more than a rental and easy distraction.