CLEARWATER — Dolphin Tale 2, the latest entry in Tampa Bay's very own homegrown film franchise, made a splashy debut Wednesday night in the city where it was filmed.
The movie opens in theaters nationwide Friday. But a sneak-preview screening on Wednesday had Ruth Eckerd Hall's auditorium filled with hundreds of passionate fans.
The first Dolphin Tale movie was a sleeper hit, earning $95 million since its release in 2011. Hopes are high for the sequel. Both films were inspired by the true story of Winter, the dolphin at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium that learned to swim with a prosthetic tail.
In keeping with the aquatic theme, the premiere featured a blue carpet, instead of the customary red carpet, for arriving celebrities.
The movie's biggest names — Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd — couldn't make it Wednesday. Instead, the film's two youngest stars got the spotlight.
Nathan Gamble, who plays the character Sawyer, and Cozi Zuehlsdorff, who plays Hazel in the movie, were 12 when they appeared in Dolphin Tale. Now they're 16. They've signed on as goodwill ambassadors for the aquarium, routinely returning to meet with the disabled children who travel to Clearwater to meet Winter.
"Winter means so much for so many people," Gamble said on the blue carpet. "She's a dolphin, and it doesn't take a lot to communicate with a dolphin and connect with them because they're so humanlike. But with Winter, it's a whole new league because everyone knows her story and can feel a way to relate to her."
Wednesday night's event showcased Winter's connection to the wounded veterans and the children with prosthetic limbs who have drawn inspiration from her. Not every movie premiere features a Pledge of Allegiance led by a color guard of amputee veterans.
Kevin Carroll, who helped fashion Winter's prosthetic tail, walked the blue carpet with a longtime patient, 23-year-old Pedro Pimenta of St. Petersburg.
"It's hard to make a tail for a dolphin. It slips and all that," said Pimenta, who has prosthetic arms and legs. "Sometimes I'll think, 'I don't want to wear my leg today.' But I see the dolphin wearing hers. It's an inspiration."
Also walking the blue carpet were actors Austin Stowell, who plays Sawyer's cousin Kyle, and Austin Highsmith, who plays a dolphin trainer named Phoebe. They spoke of how shooting the sequel was like a family reunion because the entire cast returned.
They also revealed that the film's baby dolphin, Hope, was way more hyper and challenging to work with than Winter, now a seasoned movie veteran.
There was also much focus on the aquarium's mission of rescue and rehabilitation of marine mammals. Charles Martin Smith, who directed both movies, recalled that a scene showing a dolphin being released back into the wild got cut from the first film. He made sure it got into the sequel.
"There were still stories to be told," he said, "and I wanted to tell them."
Contact Mike Brassfield at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 445-4151. Follow @MikeBrassfield.