Inspired by a true story, anchored by a talented cast, Dolphin Tale is all family friendly and well intentions, a film about the affirmation of life not the jagged edges of tragedy and despair that scar, refuse to heal and get in the way of happy endings. Earning a Truly Moving Picture Award from Heartland, you should know going in that the film is after meaningful life lessons, for an opportunity to share in the warm stuff that comes from hope, healing and learning. It’s dangerously close to convenient, populated with overly ambitious problem solvers and shortcut solutions but it comes with the territory, after all. These films come with a message attached, tiny instructions scribbled in the margins as a little reminders that the strongest step toward learning is paying attention. Dolphin Tale wants to entertain at the level of hope and possibility and it’s hard to fault it for knowing what it wants to accomplish.
Dolphin Tale operates best on the strength of core themes that build on issues of fulfillment, adaptation and compromise and how the individual gains strength from a firm connection with the world around them. It is only after Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) begins to connect with Winter (the dolphin) and the people of the Clearwater Marine Hospital that he’s able to reach out to his mother (Ashley Judd). This connection becomes about learning to make the most out of your situation and overcome troubles in order to live a more enriching life, personally and collectively. You have to put away the fact that the true story this film is based on would have been a better film than this. It’s easier if you accept subtlety and convenience as a way to start a conversation, not end one. To the film’s accomplishment it does not attempt to answer questions about dysfunction and deliverance any more than it suggests wanting to change is a precursor to success. Mostly Dolphin Tale wants to make you feel good about feeling the same way at times in your own life, about facing difficult challenges and coming to road blocks that present no easy solutions. These days films about family togetherness are few and far between, those that try too hard to make broken (The Kids Are All Right) and those that prefer heavy-handed scattered as measurable similarities to our own fractured opportunities to change or stay the same forever (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close – my review here). Dolphin Tale asks that you spend a few hours in a world that looks an awful lot like our own only skewed ever so slightly, catching broken corners and spiderweb ladders where problems can be resolved to smiles and laughter, knowing deep down inside it’s what we bring to the mirror that weighs the most on our shoulders. Finding the light at the end of the tunnel can be as rewarding as it is simple, inspired by possibility.
Dolphin Tale finds Sawyer at that awkward age of independence and dispassion, as much an outcast of the world as his broken family. We’re not supposed to think of single mother’s and unconventional family as troubled or damaged, but here it defines Sawyer’s failure and lack of enthusiasm as the pivot point for change. Sawyer’s alienation changes as soon as he comes across Winter on the beach and dying. This triggers a connection between the two that establishes the dramatic through line, their coming together and learning from one another, changing individually and collectively everyone else in the story. What ensues is your standard learn and adapt scenario, Winter coming to terms with the loss of her tail and the prosthetic that will save her life, and Sawyer learning to be with people and his family. What feels manipulative and forced is, where all the pieces are put back together pretty much as you expect is disappointing, you realize some films are less about all the reasons things should fail and cause pain and traumatized as they are completing the circle of life. There are plenty of edgier, brooding examples of broken people overcoming tragedy, resolving their differences and learning to love and live again and I’ve reviewed some of those films that I enjoyed a lot more – Drive (2011) and Small Town Murder Songs (2011) – and some I enjoyed less – For Colored Girls (2010) and Up In The Air (2009). Dolphin Tale asks you to believe again in the potential of good changing our lives forever.
To Blu-ray or not to Blu-ray:
Dolphin Tale is hardly true Blu-ray worthy, absent the sort of spectacle you’d expect enhanced to fill your living room theater. You won’t find daring deep-sea adventure or grand action-soaked sequences of many splendid Technicolor extravagance. In a character film that lives and breathes effortlessly on smiles and subtlety, on the cool calm quiet between gentle creatures of the sea, the beauty of Blu-ray is perhaps the added space for bonus features here and less technical brilliance. Warner Bros. put together a two-disc release, one containing the film and special features in HD, the other disc a DVD copy of the movie. In addition you’ll find an Ultraviolet Digital Download code in the Combo-Pack, a nice dust jacket with the Insider Rewards membership offer inside. The Combo-pack offers much more stuff so there’s always that.
Warner Home Video, a division of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Inc., invited me to join their exclusive Blu-ray Elite Movie Review Program and they sent me a complimentary copy of this movie for the purpose of review with special attention on the “Blu-ray Experience”. I received this video for free, but that does not sway this review or the reviews of other films that will follow.