Dolphin Tale was a surprise hit with moviegoers three years ago. Its uplifting story about Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), an introverted boy who discovers his passion in life when he helps rescue a bottlenose dolphin entangled in a crab trap and then gets involved in its rehabilitation (which requires the dolphin's tail to be amputated and replaced with a prosthetic), was sweet and heartwarming without being cloying or overly manipulative. The true story made quite a splash at the box office by hauling in more than $72 million in ticket sales, with families generating much of that amount. Now comes Dolphin Tale 2, an equally good charmer that is every bit as impressive as the original.
The first movie made clear that dolphins cannot be housed alone. The social creatures need a companion or they become despondent. Winter, the real-life dolphin who was the inspirational focus of the first flick, and who resides at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium in Florida, loses her elderly pool mate Panama to natural causes and becomes depressed. USDA regulations stipulate that if a suitable female companion cannot be found, Winter must be relocated to a similar facility in Texas. Further complicating matters is the aquarium's motto, "rescue, rehab, release," dictated by Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) when he created the aquatic haven -- which means that when a rescued creature is able to return to its natural habitat, it will be released back into the wild.
Haskett's spunky daughter Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) and Sawyer don't agree with the dictum, because another female dolphin was recently rescued and would make an ideal tank mate for Winter. But the badly sunburned dolphin is healing quickly and will soon be well enough to return to the gulf. If a replacement isn't found in 30 days, Winter will be transferred. Of course, a potential mate is found in an infant dolphin that Hazel names Hope. The upside is that Hope cannot return to the wild because she never learned how to catch fish in order to feed herself. The downside, however, is that there is no guarantee the two will bond.
Charles Martin Smith, still perhaps best known as Terry "the Toad" Fields from American Graffiti, helmed the first installment and returns to the director's chair this time around as well (he also penned the screenplay). His unadulterated style blends beautifully with the serene surroundings, and, unlike many family-oriented films, he doesn't dumb down the material or shy away from some darker moments. He's also added a nice romantic element to the story, with Sawyer and Hazel now awkwardly attracted to one another. Thankfully, Smith isn't the only one who returns. The entire cast are back, including Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, and Kris Kristofferson, even though they are sorely underused this go-round. And for comic relief, that pesky pelican Rufus returns with more hilarious high jinks.
Dolphin Tale 2 lacks a bit of the dramatic heft of the first film, but that's a minor complaint given the satisfaction this sequel generates. And while the movie can stand on its own, it will definitely be a more enjoyable experience if viewers are already familiar with Winter, Sawyer, and Hazel. But either way, families looking for some refreshing, frolicking fun will find it in this warm Winter's tale.