Sunday, April 15, 2012

Catching Up: "Dolphin Tale"

 2.5 / 5 

Take a look at that poster and tell me what happens in Dolphin Tale.  You could do it without seeing a frame of the movie.  But some films, you just don't fight.

Dolphin Tale is one of those movies.  There's absolutely nothing particularly noteworthy or even especially good about Dolphin Tale, but it's a charmer nonetheless, the cinematic equivalent of a cute little puppy just sitting there waiting to be loved.  Or, at least, liked a whole lot.

The problems in the movie aren't all that worth mentioning; most of them are what you would expect from a movie made for undiscerning children.  There's a young child actress who mugs insanely for the camera, as if her parents are standing just beyond the edge of the screen shouting, "A casting agent might be watching!"  There are not one but two grizzled, veteran actors who are too good for this stuff, but who are doing it anyway, possibly not just for the paycheck but because they think this is the kind of movie that they can take their grandkids to see.  They're right.

There's also a wonderfully adorable dolphin who gets caught in a crab trap and loses his tail.  "No dolphin has ever survived without its tail," the widower oceanographer (Harry Connick Jr.) says ominously, while the young boy (Nathan Gamble) who found the dolphin looks on, accompanied by his pretty, widowed mother (Ashley Judd).  That the oceanographer and the mother don't fall madly but chastely in love is a bit of a surprise.

The movie takes place in Florida, and it perfectly captures the laid-back, amiable atmosphere of a coastal town that could hardly be more low-key.  Sawyer, the young boy at the center of the story, desperately needs to find something to do, and he's lucky to live in the kind of place where exploring is still encouraged, particularly by old-salt sea captains like the one played here by Kris Kristofferson.

He finds the titular dolphin dying on a beach, and becomes intrigued by the rescue effort.  The dolphin and the boy bond, and while it's easy to show movie audiences how a dog or a horse and a boy might bond, a dolphin presents some particular challenges that the filmmakers meet quite nicely.  But the dolphin will need a new tail, and Sawyer is struck by inspiration when he goes to visit his Iraq War-veteran cousin, who has lost the use of his legs in combat.

That's where Morgan Freeman comes into play, with his sonorous voice and his uncanny ability to make even the most underwritten character feel at least moderately real.  He brings such unexpected conviction to the throwaway role that you can't help but smile when he finds that he, too, has come to love this plucky little dolphin.

It's all serviceably directed by Charles Martin Smith, who starred in one of the most memorable of all wildlife films, the 1983 Disney movie Never Cry Wolf.  Dolphin Tale is a long, long way from Never Cry Wolf for many reasons, not the least of which is that, sadly and puzzlingly, most of its underwater characters aren't real.

In a bone-headed move, the filmmakers decided that modern young viewers would rather see dolphins, sea turtles, stingrays and fish rendered in computer animation.  The opening shots of Dolphin Tale are cringe-inducing because instead of offering up the real wonders of the ocean, they're animated.  So, too, are shots of the residents of the aquarium at the heart of the film, and the fake characters sap authenticity from the film at key moments.  It's hard to share (much less believe) the look of wonder on the faces of characters when you know that they're looking at green screens with fake fish added in later.

Dolphin Tale should have celebrated the beauty of the oceans, not the abilities of CG animators.  But the story at its heart is nonetheless hard to resist.  If you need a pleasant time-filler, or want to keep kids and yourself occupied on a rainy day, it's a good choice.

Viewed April 9, 2012 -- Blu-ray

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