By Drew Taylor | The Playlist September 22, 2011 at 2:04AM
In the new, squeaky clean family film "Dolphin Tale," based on the true story of an injured dolphin that is outfitted with a cutting edge prosthetic tail, there are enough civic and spiritual virtues levelled at you to fill several Sunday school classes. The importance of family, friendship, never leaving someone behind, accepting those with disabilities, respecting the ocean, and studying hard in class, are reiterated repeatedly, so much so that you suspect this may be a sly "Christian values" movie dressed up like an eco-friendly Saturday afternoon romp (it does come from the same people who made "The Blind Side" so keep that in mind). But the movie is set in Clearwater, Florida, which many will recognize as the cuddly epicenter of Scientology in the United States, and scanning the background of any particular scene you can see the monolithic Scientology center (the Flag Building, as large as a city block) looming against the pale blue sky.
What if, instead of these Godly tenets, the movie imparted the importance of excommunicating toxic Thetans from your body, and at some point instead of a hotel owner steamrolling the precious (but underfunded) aquarium, the dolphin and his pals (including Harry Connick Jr. as the beleaguered scientific head of the aquarium) faced off against a more cosmic threat – that of space overlord Xenu! (Then the 3D would really be used for something special.) Sadly, none of this occurs, and Scientology is left off the table (although a couple of the extras in the big rally-to-save-the-aquarium scene did look a little too squeaky clean). Instead, what we're left with is a perfectly acceptable, if sometimes trite and way too overlong (118 minutes when all is said and done) family adventure about overcoming disabilities and believing in yourself. Also, there's a dolphin with a prosthetic tail that, amazingly, is played by the actual dolphin the story is based on.
Nathan Gamble, who was in "The Mist" and "The Dark Knight" (as well as Joe Dante's excellent, never-released-in-the-U.S. "The Hole"), plays a young boy named Sawyer Nelson. Abandoned by his father, he has a prickly relationship with his mother (Ashley Judd) and an inability to focus in class. On his way to summer school one day he passes a dolphin that's been caught up in a crab trap's net. When the team from the aquarium come to rescue the dolphin (later named Winter), they realize that circulation has been cut off from his tail and he might not recover.
Curious about the health of his mammalian pal, Sawyer sneaks into the aquarium, befriending a young girl about his age named Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), whose father (Connick Jr.) runs the aquarium. They check on the dolphin and Connick Jr., as well as a pair of cute, anonymous scientists, realize that Sawyer and Winter have a special connection. They invite Sawyer back in an effort to rehabilitate Winter.
At some point, they realize that they can't save Winter's tail, so they amputate it. After Winter attempts to swim by using her stump (Connick Jr. says something about her "wiggling like a snake," which is kind of a creepy image to manifest in a children's film), they realize that her swimming like that is actually agitating her vertebrae (since dolphins swim by moving their fins up and down, not side to side as is in the case with her snake-shimmy). That's when Sawyer has the brilliant idea to bring in Morgan Freeman, playing a scientist who specializes in prosthetics and bowties, to help build Winter a new tail. (Conveniently, Sawyer's cousin has just come back from Afghanistan with nerve damage in his leg.) And oh yeah, Kris Kristofferson shambles around sometimes as Connick Jr.'s father, mostly just to grumble and give some much-needed life lessons in the most gravelly way possible.
Is "Dolphin Tale" a particularly good movie? No. But it's passable. It's directed by Charles Martin Smith aka the nerdy Untouchable in Brian De Palma's film (he also directed the pilot episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"). Smith takes a very workmanlike approach to the material, opening the film with glittery sequences of computer generated dolphins frolicking in the ocean (and, where applicable, in 3D), before settling into the more domestic stuff (and, mercifully, forgetting about the CGI for the most part). The problem is when the focus shifts away from Winter's story, particularly during sequences where the board members fret about the takeover of the aquarium by a local hotel magnate (and possible Scientologist – okay, that part is made up). The movie desperately wants to have some kind of external conflict, but that just isn't up to snuff (it's also been recycled from every kids' movie on the planet).
Smith more gamely handles the wacky stuff with the animals (he's a veteran of Disney's "Air Bud" series), like the pesky pelican named Roofus that pecks at visitors to the aquarium, and gets into a genuine groove as the team tries to find a solution to the dolphin's tail problem. In those moments, the movie takes on a kind of "Iron Man" sheen, with schematics popping up on screen and zooming towards the camera (accompanied by Mark Isham's appropriately rousing score). But shortly after that, the movie deteriorates into a pat, save-the-aquarium climax in which the dolphin seems like an afterthought and the more pressing issues, about oceanography, the environment, and marine biology, have fallen by the wayside, replaced by cloying sentimentality. The only thing missing was the Xenu spaceship. [C]