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‘Dolphin Tale’ a heartwarming splash

Article Published: Sep. 29, 2011 | Modified: Sep. 29, 2011
‘Dolphin Tale’ a heartwarming splash

Nathan Gamble and Winter the dolphin star in ‘Dolphin Tale.’

I’ll go ahead and say it. That dolphin movie’s pretty darn heartwarming.

It’s hard not to smile at a dolphin’s playful shenanigans or not to wince when it’s in peril.

It’s also hard not to enjoy “Dolphin Tale,” a feel-good flipper fest that appeals to audiences young and old.

Sure, it has Disney written all over it, but director Charles Martin Smith (“Air Bud”) tells the story in earnest, avoiding cheap sentimentality for a more honest take on tugging those heartstrings.

This could be because “Dolphin Tale” is based, in part, on a true story. It’s the tale of Winter the dolphin (playing herself in the film), who, in 2006, was found near the Florida coast with her tail caught in a crab trap.

To save Winter’s life, her tail was amputated, though she quickly learned to adapt and swim proficiently without. This, however, created a new complication, as her vertebrae could not sustain the different motions required for swimming.

Eventually, she was fitted with a state-of-the-art prosthetic tail that enabled her to swim normally, and she is now the most popular attraction at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Clearwater, Fla.
The movie keeps Winter’s tale in tact, but the surrounding story about her discovery and those who found her has been considerably altered to meet the Disney criteria – kids, shenanigans, life lessons, easy-to-read metaphors, that sort of thing.

But “Dolphin Tale” never panders to its audience, and, to Smith’s credit, it works.

Though Winter’s obviously the main attraction, the film centers on young Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble, “Marley & Me”), a lonely only-child who just can’t find his niche.

Failing in school and ostracized by his classmates, Sawyer’s only real friendship comes from his cousin, Kyle (Austin Stowell, TV’s “The Secret Life of the American Teenager”), who has enlisted in the Army to earn a scholarship. Sure enough, Kyle’s shipped off to war, and Sawyer’s left to his own devices.

But all this changes when he encounters a beached dolphin one fateful morning, her tail caught in a crab trap. After Sawyer cuts her free, the dolphin is rescued by aquarium veterinarian Dr. Clay (Harry Connick Jr., “P.S. I Love You”) and his precocious young daughter, Hazel (newcomer Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who names the dolphin Winter.

But Winter isn’t responding to rehabilitation, until Sawyer starts frequenting the aquarium. Winter takes an immediate liking to the boy, and the two develop a fast, unlikely friendship.

It’s an amiable little story, and an appearance by an eccentric Morgan Freeman (“The Shawshank Redemption”) only make matters better. “Dolphin Tale,” like its protagonist, is a rarity – a “family” film that young and old can enjoy.

“Dolphin Tale” is being screened in 2-D and 3-D, but 3-D is hardly necessary, as there are only two scenes that could possibly benefit from such a presentation.

“Dolphin Tale,” rated PG for some mild thematic elements, is playing at Regal Cinema 7 in Boone. For show times, see page 15-B or visit

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