Dolphin Tale arrives Friday in theaters on a tidal wave of expectation around the Tampa Bay area, where the movie's aquatic hero Winter resides and where it was filmed last year.
Rest easy, fellow citizens. The movie is good, and we look better on screen than anytime since Cocoon a quarter-century ago. Dolphin Tale is postcard-pretty, with a message of enduring hope and family scrawled in big, block letters. Other communities would love to appear this wholesome and positive on screen.
Dolphin Tale is flattering and polished, and local chambers of commerce will milk it for years. Even if produced anywhere else, Dolphin Tale is a nice piece of work. Director Charles Martin Smith presents the kind of movie that gives squeaky-clean a good name.
And he does it without compromising the essence of Winter's true experiences, surviving tailless after a crab trap accident, learning to use a prosthetic and giving hope to physically challenged people. Details are changed and characters added or altered but always with the best intentions of creative license.
Screenwriters Karen Janszen (Free Willy 2) and Noam Dromi frame Winter's story with tried-and-true clichés: the single mother (Ashley Judd) raising a sullen son (Nathan Gamble); a widower (Harry Connick Jr.) raising a daughter (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) with the help of his grizzled dad (Kris Kristofferson); a business on the brink of failure; a wise old man (Morgan Freeman, who else?) for comic relief and sentimental clarity.
But drop these characters into sea life rescue motives and Florida motifs that Hollywood doesn't churn out weekly, and they seem fresher. Cast them with actors who can lift an elemental screenplay, and a sense of authenticity follows, no matter the tweaks. Smith isn't credited as a screenwriter but admits inventing several scenes solely for entertainment. The hurricane and goofy pet pelican are excusable; the toy helicopter flying amok, not so much.
Everything revolves around Winter (or her CGI and animatronic doubles), who is as captivating on camera as in person. She does more with a single expression than Taylor Lautner can and makes trained movements appear as reflexive as Brad Pitt, both of whom have movies opening at the box office this weekend as well. If the Patsy Awards for animal performances were still around, she'd be a shoo-in.
Winter's human co-stars fare equally well. Gamble and Zuehlsdorff are refreshingly unaffected actors, just a couple of kids convincingly playing make-believe. Connick's easy-going manner precludes the sappiness his role could incite, and nobody plays a grouchy sage as well as Freeman, or a scraggly one like Kristofferson. Judd is mainly a fetching, concerned bystander, hinting at a romance with Connick's character that never comes.
Everything works within the film's modest ambitions. Dolphin Tale is solid family entertainment without a single poop joke, profanity or rude remark, a rarity for even the most benign movies these days.
Can Dolphin Tale play to audiences beyond Winter's local ripple of friends? The little dolphin that could inspires a movie that might.
It depends largely on how much The Lion King's surprisingly robust reissue cuts into ticket sales, and whether audiences are turned off on principle by yet another 3D release. (I've seen Dolphin Tale in both formats and preferred the less expensive 2D.) Artistry isn't an issue; even moviegoers who avoid kid flicks like chicken pox can find something to like in Smith's film, or later on home video.
Yet, Dolphin Tale has something to prove beyond box office numbers, to Tampa Bay residents who have closely followed Winter's story and are eager for a major motion picture filmed locally to succeed.
Feel proud, citizens. Dolphin Tale is a satisfying shot of Hollywood posterity, a creative step below Cocoon and a flight of stairs above Cop and a Half. If audiences beyond our borders are enticed, then a movie inspired by a dolphin who lost her tail will gain box office legs. And we won't need to look back as fondly at The Punisher.
Dolphin Tale, rated PG for mildly disturbing scenes of dolphin distress, gets a grade of B+.
Steve Persall can be reached at Persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365.