One of the pleasures of watching Dolphin Tale is that we know everything will be all right, even before entering the theater. We know this because the film’s subject, Winter the dolphin, was cast as herself in a dramatization of her own story. In December of 2005, at just three months old, a baby dolphin found herself caught in a crab trap in Mosquito Lagoon off the coast of Florida; after being noticed and led to shore by a local fisherman, a teenager, a nine-year-old boy, and the boy’s mother, teacher, and principal, she was rescued by Teresa Mazza of the nearby Hubbs-SeaWorld Research Institute. Hours later, the dolphin was transferred to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, where she was dubbed Winter. She survived, but the ropes that entangled her permanently cut off the blood supply to her tail, meaning it would have to be amputated.
A dolphin’s natural swimming style is to use its tail like a flipper, with rhythmic up and down motions. The only way Winter could propel herself was by shaking her stump from side to side. Due to concern over the long-term effects those motions would have on her spine, it was decided that she should be fitted with a prosthetic tail. She would eventually receive one thanks to an Irish prosthetist named Kevin Carroll and his team, but only after an arduous year and a half of design work, tests, and fittings that culminated in a model made of silicone and plastic, with a gel-based sleeve acting as a barrier between Winter’s skin and the prosthetic. In the years since, Winter has become a top draw at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, and is even credited by some as an inspiration to people with physical disabilities.
Like most family-oriented film based on true stories, Dolphin Tale takes serious liberties with facts, figures, and names, and it intentionally surrounds the title subject with a series of subplots that are both sentimental and either partially or entirely fictional. Yes, I could be critical of this approach, but in doing so, I would have to be equally as critical of the countless other movies made with similar sensibilities that I’ve recommended. I would also have to lie to you and say that I wasn’t moved by Winter’s plight – and, to a certain extent, by the characters. Besides, the goal was to make a movie, not a documentary, which is to say that the filmmakers are under no obligation to be historically accurate. The only real criticism I have is the film’s presentation in 3D, which didn’t feel warranted given the subject matter and the lack of any significant special effects.
In a dramatized retelling geared for younger audiences and their parents, of course there would be a boy without any friends who was abandoned by his father. This would be eleven-year-old Sawyer (Nathan Gamble). Of course Sawyer would learn about Winter and form a bond with her, despite having no training as a marine veterinarian. Of course he would begin skipping his summer-school classes in order to spend more time with her, despite the fact that the whole point of him being in summer school was to make up for the classes he failed during the academic year. Of course Sawyer’s mother (Ashley Judd) would withdraw him from school upon seeing how much happier being around Winter makes him. And of course Sawyer’s cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) is a champion swimmer who returns from military deployment deeply depressed over a severely injured leg.
Of course Kyle is working with a prosthetist named Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman). Of course Sawyer convinces Dr. McCarthy to work on a prosthetic tail for Winter during his vacation time. Of course a hurricane damages the animal hospital where Winter is being rehabilitated, which was of course already in dire straits financially. Of course it’s decided that the land on which the hospital rests get sold to a real estate developer. Of course homes can be found for all the animals except Winter, whose injuries have made her undesirable and therefore a prime candidate for euthanasia. Of course Sawyer comes up with a plan to save Winter and the hospital by inviting the paying public to watch a swimming contest between Kyle and the boy that broke all of Kyle’s swim records.
There are many more “of course” moments, but I think you get the idea. The key to enjoying Dolphin Tale, I believe, is simply to lower your expectations. You must concede that movies like this follow a very specific formula, and that they’ve done so for a very long time, and that they will continue to do so, not only because that’s what audiences have come to expect from them, but also because they actually demand it of them. And why shouldn’t they? Given how hard life can be and often is, and given how cynical and disillusioned we’ve become, we sometimes need to be shown, if only for less than two hours, good things happening to good people – and good dolphins. Whether or not such a thing is realistic is an argument I’m not at all interested in taking part in.