Dolphin Tale is an inspirational story about an accidental friendship between a young, lonesome boy named Sawyer (Nathan Gamble, “James Gordon” from The Dark Knight) and a dolphin named Winter, whose tail was caught in a crab trap. At every corner, this family drama presents trial and triumph, tragedy and hope. It’s a well-made film that’s sure to steal a few hearts.
Sawyer, like many kids in life, is a victim of bullying and thus dislikes and fails at school. It’s established early on that Sawyer doesn’t have many friends beyond arguably his best, his older cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell). Kyle’s a champion swimmer and state record holder with Olympic dreams. In order to afford the training costs, Kyle enlists in the army, sending shock through Sawyer’s world. Without his cousin, he wanders alone and comes across Winter, the trapped and injured dolphin who washed up on shore. Her “tweety bird” call ignites a fire within and suddenly, Sawyer has found a passion. He looks up the rescue center (Clearwater Marine Aquarium) and befriends the little girl he met on the beach named Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). Together, they and her father’s team at Clearwater work to save Winter’s life by enlisting the help of Dr. Cameron McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), a prosthetic specialist for wounded soldiers.
Harry Connick Jr. (as Dr. Clay Haskett), Ashley Judd (as Lorainne Nelson) and Kris Kristofferson (as Reed Haskett) form the rest of the main cast of characters to tell this remarkably inspirational tale, based on a true story. In 2006, the Clearwater Marine Aquarium actually did find a dolphin whose tail had been caught in a crab trap. Little did they know the three-month old dolphin (actually named Winter) would cause their mission of marine life rescue, rehabilitation and release into the wild to catapult. Winter was transported to the CMA for rehabilitation and unfortunately, due to infection, lost two vertebrae and her tail. It was through the work of the dedicated individuals at CMA and Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, Inc. that Winter survived and is growing into a fish eating adult!
Sure, for the purpose of the film names were changed and drama and situations were added, those aspects were to be expected. But, who can look past such a true-to-life inspirational story such as Winter’s? If this dolphin (and film) doesn’t capture an audience’s heart it’s difficult to say what will. Fortunately for Winter, she’s the star of the show and will hopefully reap the benefits of this film, whether that’s through increased tourism or through increases in donations. Anyway, down to the film’s technicalities because it is a well-made film.
Each of the actors do a commendable job with their work, which is surprising considering the limited amount of experience some of them have. Connick Jr., Judd, Kristofferson and Freeman do what’s expected – meaning they’re not overly amazing, but it’s obvious each of them are good performers adding to the film’s solidity. The most surprising work comes from the two child actors, Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff and Austin Stowell. Gamble, of the three is the most experienced and should be good and he is. He does well playing the role of secluded, antisocial adolescent who discovers a passion and excitment for something. Gamble makes you feel his emotions as they range from loneliness to happiness. Zuehlsdorff on the contrary makes her feature film debut (and acting debut) in Dolphin Tale and she embodies the outgoing, playful-yet-responsible little girl perfectly (granted, there are a few stiffly delivered lines, but it’s her first gig – so who cares?). She and Gamble represent a great on-screen pairing. Then there’s Austin Stowell and the best part about his entire performance is that he is able to generate an empathetic response without overacting. He looks and delivers very naturally to the camera and that’s impressive considering most of his work consists of seven credits, most of which are for television (in minor or guest starring roles).
The camera work thoughout the film is nice as well, especially in the moments from Winter’s point of view. It’s intersting watching water wave up over the lens and then back off, as it would Winter’s eyes, presumably. Moments like these are used throughout, for instance, in the beginning there’s an underwater scene where the camera is “chasing” dolphins and it’s beautiful watching them swim toward and past the camera that’s also brushing past underwater plant life. Sure, these kinds of techniques can be found on Discovery or Nat Geo Wild, but in the moment, some of these shots themselves are inspiring – they’d be nice shots to try replicating experimentally if you’re a filmmaker. Underwater filming is fascinating on it’s own, but when camera operators know what and how, it’s even better. In the moment when Sawyer and Winter swim together, beams of the sun radiate beneath the water and it’s magical.
As for the story, generally saturation of drama or ironic coincidences can hurt a film and it’s all to be expected considering this is a family drama, of course there need to be insurmountable odds and there are. But none of them are so unrealistic that they’re not believable. Hurricanes and money woes are very real-life problems, injuries and prosthetics are very real as well, but it’s all in the handling and the story was written in a way that comes off as sensible and not overly artificial – though this story was obviously developed for the screen, it’s done so in a way that seems honest.
I’ll admit, when Dolphin Tale was announced, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see it. I figured it would be full of cliche and a lot like the other “based on a true story” movies in recent memory, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s so much more. There are so many moments in this film that really create inspiration (whether that’s as a filmmaker or as a person), it’s very empathetic (there’s one scene of a girl and her mother who drive from Atlanta…) and makes you realize just how fortunate we are if we can walk, swim, run or do anything physically challenging without help.
Dolphin Tale is rated PG and runs 119 mintues. And if you’re like me (an animal lover) then you can also go to and bookmark www.seewinter.com and follow the real-life Winter, make plans to visit her or make donations to feed her growing appetite.