Dolphin Tale—movie review

Not all family films are created equal. This one was inspired by the remarkable real-life story of a dolphin named Winter who washed ashore in Florida, had to have its tail amputated, and taught itself to swim even without the appendage. As it turns out, that wasn’t the end of Winter’s challenges.

Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi have built a screenplay around that true story that draws on familiar Hollywood-movie tropes, but plays well just the same. A likable young actor named Nathan Gamble plays a lonely boy, being raised by single mom Ashley Judd, who helps rescue Winter and develops a special—

—connection with the creature. Even the man (played by Harry Connick, Jr.) who runs a sea rescue facility in Clearwater has to admit that the dolphin responds uniquely well to the boy. It’s his determination that fuels many of the events that follow.

A parallel story involves the boy’s cousin, a kind of big brother who goes overseas to serve in the military and comes home after being injured wearing a leg brace. Winter’s need for a prosthetic tail becomes a direct source of inspiration for the young veteran, and many other grownups around him. Morgan Freeman plays a prosthetics specialist at the local V.A. hospital who takes on the challenge of fabricating an artificial tail for a species he’s never treated before.

Winter’s life-threatening crises, the boy’s loneliness, and the subplot of a close relative going away to war and being hurt in an explosion are the reason Dolphin Tale is rated PG, and not G. While the film might seem formulaic to adult viewers, it deals with pretty serious issues on its way to a happy ending; parents should know this going in.
It deals with these subjects in an admirably straightforward manner and doesn’t duck the realities with sugar-coating—but you may have to do some explaining to your kids.

Formula or no, by the end of the film I found myself tearing up—which I did a second time during a final sequence with home-video footage that shows how Winter continues to inspire youngsters who are missing arms and legs. They get a chance to spend quality time with the indomitable dolphin at his aquarium home in Clearwater. (To see some real-life footage, go to

Interestingly, this film was directed by Charles Martin Smith, who starred some years ago in a memorable movie about man and the animal kingdom called Never Cry Wolf.

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April 2024