Review: “Dolphin Tale”

1. Every time I ever see a dolphin, I think of writer Chuck Klosterman's hilarious riff about the "intelligence" of dolphins in his book "Fargo Rock City," a riff I can't print here because this is a family website. (Also, you can't print things on websites; that's why they're websites.) You can read Klosterman on dolphins right here, because if I link to an obscenity rather than actually saying it myself, that's OK, I guess. Suffice it to say, I agree with Klosterman: Dolphins are dramatically overrated. They are fragile, they're always getting caught in things, they don't provide any intrinsic value to the planet and everyone makes a big deal out of it when one of them is in peril, or at least more than they do with other, less cute marine animals. (Also: I don't think they're that cute. It's probably the teeth.) They sure do suck up a lot of the animal kingdom's public relations oxygen. In this way, they're sort of the pandas of the ocean.

2. I give you that little anti-dolphin screed as a way of buffering myself against any charges of being Overly Supportive Of Dolphins, because I have to admit that "Dolphin Tale" is pretty darned cute. A family film in every sense of the word, it's a little sloppy at times, it occasionally lays it on a bit thick and it has the most egregious, dumb-dumb use of 3-D I can remember, but it is generous of spirit, almost goofily good-hearted and, above all, earnest as all get out. A little earnestness will get you a long way.

3. The dolphin of the title is Winter, which strikes me as a terrible name for a dolphin. A lonely, mop-topped Henry Thomas clone is riding his bike home from school when he discovers Winter flopping around on the beach, and he cuts Winter loose from some ropes and comforts him before the dolphin doctors arrive. The dolphin doctors are actually a family, with a cute age-appropriate daughter, a grizzled nautical grandfather (Kris Kristofferson, maximizing his vocal gravel) and a widower (Harry Connick, Jr.) trying to keep his animal hospital afloat in a rough economy. They take Winter in and become friends with the boy (the only person Winter trusts) before realizing that Winter's back fin is infected and will have to be removed. This causes all sorts of complications, and the boy, inspired by a cousin who was injured in combat, decides to enlist a prosthetics expert (Morgan Freeman) to save Winter's life. That's the "tale" pun of the title.

4. This is all as cheesy as it sounds, and the film has a few too many characters to go around, but it's to its credit that it makes everybody so likable regardless. A lot of the story beats don't work, and by the end of the film it abandons most of its more honest instincts in order to wrap everything up. Fortunately, it bounces along playfully and features an unusually strong kid's performance by Nathan Gamble as the Henry Thomas clone. None of the actors wink, either; they're all in maximum goodness mode, from Connick to Kristofferson to even Ashley Judd, as the kid's mom. (Hey, Ashley, where you been?) Freeman has some fun playing a variation on his Lucius Fox character from "The Dark Knight" movies. I don't know how he does it, but somehow he can make "Come on, you dolphin ... SWIM!" sound both sincere and affecting. It's as if everyone -- including workmanlike director Charles Martin Smith, perhaps most famous as "The Toad" in "American Graffiti" -- just decided that there weren't enough movies you could take your whole family to without going into sugar shock, and planned accordingly. Everyone's having a good time.

5. There's still plenty of sugar to go around -- provided mostly by the dolphin, who is decidedly less cute than his human co-stars -- but nothing you don't get from the average CBS sitcom. The film ends with documentary footage of the doctors who cared for Winter in real life, and when we see how the animal inspires disabled people (both children and veterans), it's legitimately affecting. The movie doesn't reach those heights, but it doesn't try to. It just wants to make you leave the theater in a good mood. It certainly accomplishes that. Dolphins are still overrated, though.

Grade: B-