MacGuffin Film Review – Dolphin Tale

Film Review – Dolphin Tale

I asked the kids who sat behind me (they looked to be about 5, 9, and 14) how they liked Dolphin Tale, a new family film directed by Charles Martin Smith, and they all really enjoyed it. Even before I asked them anything, they were talking about how great it was. So, if you like cute marine animals, kids who do things rather than sit on things, and positive messages about involving yourself in the greater world and what it means to be whole, then you and your family might enjoy this movie. I did not. The first two-thirds of the film were okay, if somewhat uneven, but the last third of the movie was so preposterous it was offensive. I honestly believe that a Scooby Doo villain-removing-his-mask ending would have been more believable and more honest than what happens here. I would love to explain in detail about how stupid the end of this movie is, but I don’t want to spoil the movie for the people who are going to go see it. And therein lies my conflict: I thought this film was crap, but your kids could be seeing stuff with way worse messages. What is more important in a family film: the messages it teaches or the quality of the movie? Are movies art or teaching tools? Should the same standards of quality apply to kids’ films? Should we punish poor filmmaking the same as crass commercialism? (I know we don’t really punish anyone for that; it’s wishful thinking.) I don’t know.

Dolphin Tale is the story of Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble), who is a pretty introverted kid. His dad left five years ago and hasn’t been in contact since. His cousin, a champion swimmer, has left for the Army, and Sawyer is feeling pretty much alone in the world. On his way to school one morning, he gets flagged down to help a beached dolphin tangled in a crab trap rope. Sawyer manages to cut the rope with his mega Swiss army knife (given to him by his cousin) and stays with the dolphin until the beached animal rescue team shows up. Later that day, he goes to the animal hospital to check on the dolphin, Winter, and befriends Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who is the daughter of the marine animal hospital veterinarian, Dr. Clay Haskett (Harry Connick Jr.) She takes him to see Winter, who is doing poorly, but who perks right up when she hears him. Sawyer ends up volunteering at the hospital, helping with Winter’s care.

Unfortunately, Winter’s tail is too damaged, and they have to amputate it. She eventually learns to swim again, but using a side-to-side motion instead of up and down. This side-to-side motion will eventually cause her paralysis and death. At the same time all this is happening, Sawyer’s cousin comes back from the Army, having been caught in an explosion. He’s going to have to walk with a brace and is pretty depressed about it. While visiting him at the VA hospital, Sawyer meets Dr. McCarthy (Morgan Freeman), who is a specialist in prosthetics. Sawyer has a flash of inspiration and asks Dr. McCarthy if he can design a new tail for Winter. Can he do it? If he does it, will Winter accept it? Will Sawyer find his place in the world? Will his cousin learn to accept his physical limitations? Will Dr. Haskett have to sell the marine animal hospital to the evil developer because the hospital is in debt? Will Sawyer get credit for summer school? Will they all perish in the hurricane? There is a lot going on here.

There are some good things about this movie. Foremost is the fact that the film isn’t trying to sell kids anything. If there was product placement, it didn’t jump out at me. I felt its portrayals of girls and women were appropriate, and really enjoyed the performance of Cozi Zuehlsdorff as Hazel. (My point here is that the women weren’t there just to sell a certain look or be sexy. They had thoughts and did stuff.) Most of the performances were archetypal in nature, but Harry Connick Jr. is affable and Nathan Gamble, while bland, is not annoying. Winter is played by a real dolphin with no tail, so no bad CGI, either. The messages are positive and the kids are involved. They learn that their actions can make a difference and they can achieve positive results. The really good things about this movie, the messages and focus on the story and not the possibility for merchandising, are outstanding. Most everything else is mediocre or just bad.

There are two kinds of mediocrity that most blah films fit into. The first is the noble failure. This is a film that has all the best intentions, but for whatever reason just doesn’t hit the mark. The filmmakers picked a boring script, or made a casting mistake, or just didn’t have enough experience to pull it off. But, you can tell they believed in what they were doing and tried to make a good movie. The other kind of mediocre movie is the checklist film. The filmmakers go through their list of things they think a movie needs to have and then create their film around those criteria. This is that kind of movie. I think the director here had good intentions and the worst he can be accused of is bad filmmaking. But it is bad. Coincidentally, or maybe not, I have my own checklist for checklist movies.

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