One cannot live in Pinellas County, Florida, as I do without hearing about Winter, the bottlenose dolphin that lost its tail. Though some of the fervor has died down in recent years, there was a time when you could hardly drive down the road without seeing a billboard cajoling you to visit the Clearwater Aquarium and see the miraculous sea creature. Now, I do not want to be cynical because I truly do love animals with a Franciscan spirit, but was the film Dolphin Tale (2011) made solely to get people to travel to Clearwater and see the aquatic mammal? Maybe, but if so, who cares? They have a right to promote as they choose. As for the movie itself, it is clearly not aimed at me. Regardless, it was nice to see the area in which I live on cinematic display.
Instead of immediately focusing on Winter, Dolphin Tale takes more time setting up the human characters, primarily Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble). He is an adolescent boy dealing with the struggles of losing his father. There is also the fact that his cousin, Kyle Connellan (Austin Stowell), is leaving to serve in the military. As a result, little seems to interest Sawyer and he is forced to attend summer school because his grades begin to slip. On his way to school one day, he is flagged down by a fisherman on the beach who has found a stranded dolphin with a crap trap wrapped around its tail. Something about the dolphin attracts Sawyer, and he forms an instant connection. This interest sticks with him, and before long he is skipping out on class in order to visit Winter at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. The facility is somewhat rundown, but it is managed by the dedicated Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.), assisted by his daughter, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). They immediately recognize the bond that forms between Sawyer and Winter, and allow the boy to help with acclimating the dolphin to their facility. A couple of events imperil what would have been a cozy little arrangement. The first is the fact that he is not attending school as he is required. However, his mother, Lorraine (Ashley Judd), sees her son’s newfound interest in sea life as a God-send and works out an arrangement with the school that allows him to continue volunteering at the aquarium. Another issue is when Kyle is wounded and returns home to recuperate. This turns out to be a blessing in disguise, though, as it leads to Sawyer meeting Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman). He works at the Veterans’ Administration (VA) Hospital making prosthetic limbs for veterans. It is he who makes an artificial tail for Winter, which is made necessary by the fact that without her appendage her spine begins to develop potentially fatal abnormalities. Without this device, Winter is going to have to be put down. Still, the biggest threat is the facility’s flagging financial situation, forcing them to sell to a land developer, Philip J. Hordern (Tom Nowicki), who wants to build a hotel where the aquarium stands. What saves the day is a celebration for Winter, an animal that gives hope to people with similar infirmities. Seeing the crowds that come to see Winter, Hordern decides to keep the aquarium and gives Dr. Haskett carte blanche to run the facility.
Having a wealthy benefactor as happens towards the end of Dolphin Tale is always helpful. Church history corroborates this fact, praise God. However, what I would like to commend most is the bond between Sawyer and Winter. For whatever reason, he could not stand to see this dolphin suffer. It is beautiful that he decides to help the injured animal, but what is even better is that it leads to a love for all sea creatures. When the Catholic Church says that all life is precious, it truly means all life. One could point out that Catholics who are meat eaters are not exactly maintaining the sanctity of all God’s creations. Instead of getting into a self-inflicted theological debate, I would simply point to the mysteriousness of God’s plan. Whether or not we should all be vegetarians aside, Sawyer’s dedication to Winter and the other animals housed at the aquarium is in keeping with the preciousness of all living things.
As much as I appreciate the concept of Dolphin Tale in terms of protecting life, I cannot say I enjoyed it. I got through it, though, and did not hate myself for doing so. It is an uplifting movie, but not my style. I may be too curmudgeonly for my own good, but at least it is not filth. In all, it is a fine family movie.