Thanks, Morgan Freeman

Michael Phillips | Boulder Weekly

I’ll be honest, in the spirit of the honestly shameless heartwarmer Dolphin Tale. I saw it in a somewhat distracted, agitated state.

Forty-five seconds into the opening credits, I’m watching ocean-dwelling dolphins nosing around all sorts of potential dangers (a rusty fishing tackle box, a fateful metal crab trap), and the film’s in 3-D, so the dangers loom with exceptional emphasis, and the picture’s premise depends on putting the eventually tailless protagonist — a real-life dolphin, Winter, played by Winter — through all sorts of adversity alongside its human protectors.

But Dolphin Tale turns out to tell an interestingly crowded story. It’s rudimentary and even a little clumsy in its filmmaking technique, but there’s some narrative ambition, at least, in its inventions built upon the real-life rescue of Winter, who was no stranger to adversity and therefore destined for the movies.

The adversities affecting the sea and/or land mammals include:

Dead or abandoning parents. Skillful, young Nathan Gamble plays Sawyer, a Clearwater, Fla., 11-year-old whose father took off five years earlier. The boy has been in a funk ever since. Ashley Judd plays his mother, exasperated at her son’s grades, worried about his well-being and initially wary of allowing him to spend time with the first real passion of his life. But she relents. The community young Sawyer finds at the cash-strapped Clearwater Marine Hospital is a warm and welcoming one. His new pal, Hazel, played by the sunny Cozi Zuehlsdorff, is the motherless daughter of the hospital director portrayed by Harry Connick Jr.

Disability. Just as Winter must be taught to swim with a prosthetic tail, so, too, must Sawyer’s cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell) adjust to his body’s limitations after returning from service in Iraq with leg injuries.

Director Charles Martin Smith, who had the good fortune to star in one of the peak human/animal pictures of the last generation or two (Never Cry Wolf), handles a key scene well. A reunion between Kyle and Sawyer at the VA hospital reveals that Kyle’s in no shape to reintegrate with his family. The encounter’s difficulty is respected by both the director and his actors. Later, unfortunately, there’s a bit between Kyle and the doctor specializing in prosthetics (Morgan Freeman). Because the Morgan Freeman character is played by Morgan Freeman, he is able to set Kyle straight and cure his psychological ills with just a bromide or two.

Digital fakery. Smith, working from the script by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi, deploys a fair amount of digital dolphin action, more than I like as a moviegoer. There’s also strained comic-relief slapstick in a sequence involving Sawyer and Hazel flying, badly, a remote-controlled helicopter. Whatever. Kids’ electronic lives are crammed with so much second-rate action comedy, another minute or two won’t matter.

The cast includes Kris Kristofferson as the seafaring old salt of a grandpa. The acting has a nice, low-pressure vibe, in contrast to the film’s high-pressure peril. I haven’t mentioned the hurricane or the central financial question: Can Winter and friends save the marine hospital from closing?

—MCT, Tribune Media Service Respond: