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Movie Review: Dolphin Tale

September 23, 2011

Dolphin Tale – A Warner Bros. Pictures’ Release

Release Date: September 23rd, 2011

Rated G for some mild thematic elements

Running time: 112 minutes

Charles Martin Smith (dir.)

Karen Janszen (writer)

Noam Dromi (writer)

Mark Isham (music)

Harry Connick Jr. as Dr. Clay Haskett

Ashley Judd as Lorraine Nelson

Nathan Gamble as Sawyer Nelson

Kris Kristofferson as Reed Haskett

Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Hazel Haskett

Morgan Freeman as Dr. Cameron McCarthy

Austin Stowell as Kyle Connellan

Frances Sternhagen as Gloria Forrest

Austin Highsmith as Phoebe

Betsy Landin as Kat

NATHAN GAMBLE as Sawyer Nelson with WINTER in Alcon Entertainment’s family adventure “DOLPHIN TALE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release.  Photo by Jon Farmer

Our reviews below:


Dolphin Tale Review By John C.

**1/2 (out of 4)

Dolphin Tale is a movie so eager to please that many will find it easy to completely overlook the visible flaws.  For adults, it proves to be a sometimes enjoyable if not particularly memorable experience.  But the main characters here are kids and a dolphin.  Therefore, those below a certain age are clearly the target audience for the film.  If dolphins could watch movies, then they would likely enjoy it quite a bit as well.

When 11-year-old Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) first meets Winter the dolphin (playing herself), she is lying on the beach caught in a crab trap.  Taken to a marine animal hospital run by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and his young daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), her tail has to be amputated in order to prevent the infection from spreading.  Fighting to find a way for her to survive without being able to properly swim, Sawyer eventually contacts Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman).  A montage or two later, a prosthetic tail is created for the dolphin that makes her an inspiration for numerous human amputees around the world.

It’s an inspirational true story that deserves to be told, and there are several scenes in director Charles Martin Smith’s film that do work as agreeable feel good entertainment.  But Dolphin Tale also has a few too many moments of clichéd melodrama that needlessly pad out and ultimately distract from the overall story.  We don’t really need to have several sequences where poor little Sawyer is seen suffering through summer school.  A tacked on sub-plot with a developer looking to tear down the marine hospital and build a hotel is so predictably overdone that it is nothing more than a third act distraction.

The production values and average performances (save for a predictably good Morgan Freeman) sometimes feel more suited to TV or DVD.  There are also a few moments that feel false or calculated, and at a whopping 112-minutes Dolphin Tale could have also used some editing.  But the most glaring problem of all is that Warner Bros. has chosen to present it in the third dimension.  The needless 3D does nothing to enhance the story, often dimming the image to the point where it is almost unwatchable.  Thankfully, this flaw is easily fixed by finding a theatre that is showing it in good old 2D.

The best scenes in the film come over the final few minutes, as we see touching footage of Winter as well as some of the many people with disabilities who have been deeply moved by the inspiring true story.  For the handful of sweet moments and the kids who will and should greatly enjoy it, Dolphin Tale deserves a mild recommendation.


Dolphin Tale Review by Erin V.  

*** (out of 4)

Dolphin Tale is based on the true story from 2006 of Winter the dolphin, who was rescued at the age of 3 months, after she was found on a beach with her tail entangled in the line from a crab trap.  Because of the damage to her tail and two lower vertebrae, it had to be amputated to save her life.  The problem was that without her fluke, it was thought that she wouldn’t be able to swim (and thus not survive).  When Winter started to wiggle her body side-to-side and move around in a cross between alligator/shark movements, it was a miracle.  Unfortunately though, this kind of movement was hard on her body to sustain, so a company that makes prosthetic limbs for humans took on the challenge to try to make a workable fluke that she could wear to swim like a dolphin again.

The film version (which stars the real Winter as herself) tells this basic inspiring story, with lots of – and a times a bit too much – human drama added in to pad out the running time.  Unfortunately this makes the film a little bit long at close to two hours.  As a film that families will enjoy, perhaps around 90-95 minutes would have made for a tighter film.  On the human side of Dolphin Tale, we get the story of Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), an 11 year old boy who finds Winter on the beach and then having made a connection with her, helps in her healing process.  He is failing summer school, and his cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) has just joined the army, adding yet another worry.  When Sawyer goes to visit Winter he meets another 11 year old dolphin lover in Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff).  Gamble is fine as Sawyer, although Zuehlsdorff overacts at times (she seems to be giving a performance more suited for the stage), an issue that often seems to plague young North American actors in particular…

Overall though, (even with its minor faults), I enjoyed it.  When it ended, I thought how much I would have loved this film when I was 11 – like the kids in the film.  I just happened to be obsessed with dolphins and whales at that age.  Definitely for dolphin lovers and families alike, there is a lot to like here, including some sweet moments where human amputees find a connection with this dolphin who is differently-abled, just like them.  This one is worth seeing if you just want a feel-good and family-friendly film, although it will still hold up on DVD.  In fact, in theatres, I found the 3D element distracting throughout, and would recommend saving the surcharge and just taking in a 2D show if you want to see this one on the big screen.


Dolphin Tale Review by Nicole

*** (out of 4)

How far would you go for a friend?  In Dolphin Tale, the inspiring story of Winter, a bottlenose dolphin whose tail gets caught in the ropes of a crab trap, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble), an eleven year old boy, finds the dolphin and contacts Clearwater Marine Center, a rehabilitation centre for marine wildlife.

Winter’s tail has to be amputated, a dangerous procedure for an animal whose body moves up and down, as opposed to a fish’s sideways movement.  Although Sawyer may have a solution.  His cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) has been injured in the war, but is recovering thanks to the rehabilitative efforts of Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), who specializes in human leg braces and prosthetic limbs.  He agrees to create a prosthetic tail fluke for Winter.  But when Clearwater Marine Center is in danger of closing, can Sawyer save Winter and the wildlife centre as well?

Dolphin Tale is a sweet and charming feel good film.  Reminiscent of the classic Free Willy trilogy that I fondly remember, I think Dolphin Tale will appeal greatly to families.  While the acting (with the exception of Morgan Freeman) is no more than average for a kid’s film, there is enough story to keep this one worth seeing.  I quite enjoyed seeing Winter play herself onscreen.  I really liked seeing Winter, both on film and in real life, be an inspiration for amputees as well as an ambassador for wildlife conservation.  Anyone who loves animals is sure to enjoy this film.


Dolphin Tale Review by Maureen

**3/4 (out of 4)

Anyone with a soft spot for dolphin rescue stories will most likely love the movie Dolphin Tale.  The star of this based on true life story is Winter, a bottle-nosed dolphin who’s flukes had to be amputated after being caught in a crab-fishing trap.

In the movie, an 11-year-old boy, Sawyer (Nathan Gamble) helps free Winter from the trap.  When Winter is transported to the Clearwater Marine Rescue Hospital run by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), Sawyer skips out of summer school to help nurse the dolphin back to health.  There Sawyer meets Dr. Clay’s 11-year-old daughter, the energetic and homeschooled Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and the two kids become fast friends.  With the help of Dr. Clay, the two kids and a prosthetic limb expert, Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) Winter is given an artificial fluke and a new lease on life.

Winter is not the only creature to benefit from the new prosthetic.  Sawyer’s cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) is an injured Marine back from Iraq who is inspired by the changes in Sawyer’s demeanor, and so decides to spend time with the recovering dolphin.  Winter’s story turns out to be a source of inspiration for many people including amputees and those with other disabilities.

Dolphin Tale is an all around feel good and family friendly movie.  The performances are believable with Morgan Freeman making the most of his relatively smaller role.  However, movie goers won’t be buying a ticket to Dolphin Tale for the people actors.  This movie is all about Winter, a beautiful bottle-nose whose story continues to inspire.  Winter fans can go to for more inspiration.

Families, especially with kids in the 8-12 range who love dolphins are in for a nice time.  It’s just too bad that needless 3D does nothing more than add to the cost of a family outing.


Dolphin Tale Review by Tony

**1/2 (out of 4)

Dolphin Tale is a family film based on the rehabilitation with an experimental prosthetic tail of the dolphin Winter (who plays herself). Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is a depressed kid in summer school left alone with his single mother (Ashley Judd) after his cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) goes into the service to pay for his Olympic swimming training. One day Sawyer helps the stranded dolphin tied up in crab trap rigging and watches as it is taken away to the Clearwater FL aquarium. Visiting the facility, Sawyer makes friends with the widowed vet, Dr. Clay (Harry Connick Jr.), his daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and sailor father (Kris Kristofferson), but particularly forms a bond with Winter, which cheers them both up, but Winter’s tail has to be amputated. When Kyle comes back with an injured leg, Sawyer intrigues Kyle’s prosthetic specialist Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman) with the challenge of devising a new tail for Winter. Despite numerous failed attempts, hurricane damage and money problems threatening the whole facility, a fund-raiser mounted by Sawyer and Hazel leads to a happy outcome.

Dolphin Tale is not a bad film of its type, better than Free Willy 4 for example, but its emotional impact is diluted by the cliché human plot elements that stretch its length out to almost two hours. Though Morgan Freeman is brilliant as always, he only appears briefly later in the film. The rest of the cast is mostly serviceable, though Stowell is tiresome as the dumb jock and Zuehlsdorff’s previous experience in stage musicals shows in an onscreen performance that, however charming, is a bit over the top. Attempts at comic relief were variable, generally working with the resident pelican, not so much with Sawyer’s radio controlled helicopter. The camera work is generally good, but the 3D is only briefly effective, not worth the dimming effect seen in most theatres. I think most families would best wait to add Dolphin Tale to their home disk collection.


Consensus: Based on the inspiring true story of Winter, a dolphin with a prosthetic tail, Dolphin Tale is a family friendly film that – although predictable – provides enough scenes of feel good entertainment for those of all ages.  **3/4 (Out of 4)

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