I expected only to barely like the movie “Dolphin Tale”—the ocean spits out an injured dolphin, the dolphin gets help from some animal lovers, the end. Instead, I found it to be a true gem, inspired by the true story of Winter, a dolphin discovered beached and entangled in a crab trap in 2005 at three months old. She was taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA) in Clearwater, Florida but ultimately lost her tail. Her will to live overcame the odds against her survival—but without a tail, she would have been doomed.
“Dolphin Tale” takes the real-life rescue and wraps it in a fictional story. It portrays the people who rallied around Winter to do what had never been done—create a prosthetic tail—and get her to use it. They form a touching union of a dedicated marine biologist, a talented prosthetics doctor, and a young boy who refuses to give up on the dolphin he helped save. Together, they create a miracle that extends beyond the dolphin into the human world.
Winter plays herself in the starring role. Her co-stars include Harry Connick Jr. as Dr. Clay Haskett, the veterinarian who runs the financially failing Clearwater Marine Hospital; Ashley Judd as single mom to Sawyer (played by Nathan Gamble), who cuts Winter from the trap; Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Hazel, Clay’s precocious daughter who draws Sawyer out of his shyness; Kris Kristofferson as Clay’s father; and Morgan Freeman as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, the veterans’ hospital doctor who lets Sawyer convince him to create a tail for Winter.
Filming was done at Winter’s home at CMA. According to aquarium CEO David Yates, producers worked together with the aquarium staff to insure that the experience was fun for Winter and not taxing. The aquarium benefited with a new pool and other modifications for the movie that were integrated into the existing facility.
Since Winter is not a trained dolphin, movie director Charles Martin Smith explained, “That is the real Winter you see. Playing with toys, jumping on the mattress–those are things she really does.” Winter’s star quality penetrates the big screen into hearts. All the actors had to get to know Winter on her own terms and develop a relationship that would make the movie convincing.
An animal rescue makes for a good story, but “Dolphin Tale” brings the bond between dolphins and humans into a deeper story of loss, courage, and determination; viewers experience Winter’s ordeal through the Sawyer’s eyes, a perspective that works to bring a number of other plots together. (Sawyer’s father abandoned him, and then his beloved older cousin left for the military.) Nathan convincingly plays the part of an insecure child of a divorced mom, struggling with his peers and school but finding a connection with a wounded dolphin.
Winter’s resilience encourages Sawyer and the other people around her to heal from their own wounds. The human characters are embroiled in another of battles—for instance, Sawyer’s emerging love of learning vs. the traditional school system, Kyle’s desire to swim in the Olympics vs. his injury, and abandonment through divorce and death vs. the neediness of children.
Harry Connick’s performance as a veterinarian was helped along by his own research and awe at how the odds were stacked against Winter. “The veterinarians I spoke with said they would have euthanized a dolphin as injured as Winter was,” he said. “One said, there’s 600,000 dolphins out there, it would not seem worthwhile to put so much money and time into saving one.”
Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman slips easily into the role of Dr. McCarthy, a man dedicated to helping injured veterans return to normal lives. His humor and kindness is melded in strength when he encounters those like Kyle, who think the end of one dream means the end of everything. “Luckily, there are a million other things you can do,” he tells Kyle.
A highlight for me was the scene where Hazel, Dr. Clay’s daughter, folds her hands, looks up to the sky, and talks to her mother, who died when she was very young. As Catholics, we understand that death does not separate us and that Hazel is asking for her mother’s prayers. As a homeschooling mother, I also enjoyed that Hazel is homeschooled and she helps awaken a love of learning in Sawyer.
It would seem that since so much of the movie is revealed in the previews, there would be no surprises left. Yet, the surprise is just how captivating the story is as it plays out. That being the case, I can reveal the ending and not be a spoiler: images of Winter’s real-life rescue. And one cannot help but tear up seeing pictures of handicapped children with delighted smiles coming to visit the little dolphin that needs an artificial limb, just like they do.
“Dolphin Tale” is being released on DVD and Blu-ray on Tuesday, December 20. The film is rated PG for mild thematic elements and can be seen in 3-D or traditional format.