Dolphin Tale is a heartwarming family film inspired by the true story of an adorable bottlenose dolphin named Winter, who was rescued by a young boy off the Florida coast and taken in by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Sure, the story of a boy and his animal friend is a familiar -- if not dated -- trope, but it works reasonably well here thanks to the earnestness that director Charles Martin Smith brings to the project. He turns Dolphin Tale into the kind of movie that gives "family friendly" a good name, and he does it without compromising the core of the real Winter's experiences -- first surviving without a tail, then learning to use a prosthetic appendage, and finally serving as an inspiration for children and adults with disabilities.
The film centers on Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), a young boy dealing with the absence of his father and spending a summer without any friends. Things change when he finds Winter, an injured dolphin who lost her tail after being tangled in a crab trap. Sawyer, along with veterinarian Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) and Clay's daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), rescues the mammal and brings her to the marine hospital, where he decides to spend the summer helping with Winter's recovery. Eventually, Sawyer's dedication inspires a local doctor (Morgan Freeman), who agrees to design a prosthetic tail for Winter.
While Dolphin Tale boasts an impressive cast -- Ashley Judd plays Sawyer's struggling single mother (who strikes up a romantic relationship with Haskett), Kris Kristofferson makes an appearance as Haskett's grizzled, preachy father, and Freeman plays the cranky military doctor with a sentimental side -- the film's soul lies with the mutually dependent relationship between a troubled preteen and his marine-mammal BFF. Winter is captivating on camera both within the narrative of the film and in documentary footage showcasing Winter interacting with people with disabilities. The underwater sequences are stunning, capturing the unique playfulness of dolphins (with a little CGI help), and they even utilize some effective point-of-view shots from the dolphin, which lends a sense of authenticity to an otherwise predictable story.
Ultimately, Dolphin Tale is a comforting throw back to classic family films from the Disney vault, in which the kids are polite, the adults have all the answers, and there's no problem a little good-hearted TLC and dedication can't solve.