Earlier this year on American Idol, Harry Connick Jr. announced that he was working on Dolphin Tale 2, which initially threw me for a loop because it didn’t make much sense at the time (of course, if I had been following Winter’s story, it would have made more sense). Dolphin Tale, released back in 2011, was based on a true story, so without knowing the full background behind the story, making a sequel felt as if they were simply capitalizing on the name recognition of the property and the worldwide phenomenon that was Winter’s inspirational tale. How happy I was to find out that Dolphin Tale 2 was also based off of real events that miraculously occurred several years after the events of the original film, and that Winter’s story wasn’t over.
The movie doesn’t stray too far from the themes set up in the original film, and writer/director Charles Martin Smith makes the smart choice to follow the same style and pattern he previously set up, while aging the film so that although it feels the same, and evokes the same platitude of emotions, it remains fresh and grows along with its main stars. A lot of this can be attributed to the editing and the musical cues, which not only builds the swell of sentiment and excitement within the moments of suspenseful dilemma, but enhance the quality of film to what it’s meant to be. Without this, some of the most rousing moments could have fallen deadly flat, or have become too sugary.
The entire original cast, including Connick Jr. as Dr. Clay Haskett, Ashley Judd as Lorraine Nelson, Kris Kristofferson as Redd Haskett and Morgan Freeman (in more a cameo role now) as Dr. Cameron McCarthy, return to continue to bring strong, heartfelt performances without going overboard in the sentimentality or cheesiness departments. But it’s Nathan Gamble (as Sawyer Nelson) and Cozi Zuehlsdorff (as Hazel Haskett) that have really grown from the last film. If the first film didn’t give you a sense of their capability to lead a movie (much less a full aquarium), their performances here quell all doubts. They hold a nice command over the movie while keeping the fun, playful chemistry they built up in the original to strengthen the bond between not only them and Winter, but the audience as well.
In staying true to the heart of the original, Dolphin Tale 2 remains centered on Winter, the dolphin who lost her fin to a crab trap and, because of the work of Dr. McCarthy and the determination of a young boy to create an artificial tale for her, subsequently brought global media attention to the work of the Clearwater Marine Hospital in Clearwater, Florida, and their dedication to rescuing and rehabilitating marine life of all types. When Winter loses her female counterpart, Panama, to old age, she must be paired with a new female per USDA regulations. If the team at the hospital don’t find one quickly, not only is Winter’s health (both physical and mental) in jeopardy, but the hospital could very well lose her to a more suitable aquarium — one that’s more attraction than home.
There is a well-done political subplot involving Dr. Haskett and Phillip Hordern (Tom Nowicki), the head of the company that helped finance the hospital at the end of the first film, that doesn’t distract from the film, but keeps a realistic balance between the dramatic aspects revolving around Winter and the more comical subplots that include Rufus the seagull trying desperately to get his beak on a sea turtle that is found on the docks tangled in fishing wire. The scenes between Connick Jr. and Nowicki are handled very delicately, making sure to keep Hordern from becoming a cartoonish villain and strengthen the overall themes that inspire the film — which gravitate toward growing up, becoming a leader and taking chances, especially when you don’t know what the future holds.
There are a few moments in the film that could have used much more weight to them, including the subplot between Sawyer and a new volunteer, Susie (Taylor Blackwell). Smith sets this relationship up very early on as a possible threat to that of Sawyer and Hazel, and although Zuehlsdorff conveys just the right amount of jealousy that gives the pair a nice touch of romantic angst without going so far as to pair them romantically, the “triangle” aspect doesn’t really go as far as I believe Smith intended. The scene in which Sawyer takes Susie’s grandfather down to a restricted area to give him a chance to see Winter, feels too sentimental and unnecessary in the long run, ending whatever conflict she was originally supposed to have been setting up.
I would also have liked to have seen a little more of the dilemma involving Sawyer’s decision to accept a scholarship for an internship that would take him away from Winter for several months. I thought the moments that played out in regards to this subplot were good, and they were treated with the utmost of respect, but at times, they felt too light and easy, as if there really wasn’t a dilemma at all.
On the flip side of that, the stories that showcase the rehabilitation and release of the animals back into the wild hold your attention as you continue to care for Winter’s overall story arc. They are a nice diversion that fit in well with the themes, and add depth to what the Clearwater Marine Hospital actually does beyond Winter. The moment Dr. Haskett allows Hazel to take point on the release of one of its animals, showing that he understands that she’s adult enough to take on such responsibilities, was a nice moment that produces a touch of sentiment without overcompensating.
But as with the first film, the scenes with the dolphins are some of the best, especially toward the end when the hospital team make their last ditch effort to pair a new female with Winter. There is a moment that tends to go by a bit faster than it should have (and that overlooks a lot of drama that could have been mined to help push the waterworks a bit more), but watching the dolphins interact, and seeing some of what they might do in a situation like this (and quite possibly display exactly what happened when they were first introduced), was more interesting than a lot of what was happening elsewhere.
After the film is over, the filmmakers once again do a quick montage of footage from the real-life crew who help these dolphins (and other aquatic wildlife), and show that a lot of what the filmmakers have done isn’t just for dramatic sake. I’m sure there were some moments added for dramatic effect, and to include a minor love story in with the mix, but all of that is secondary to the magic that happens when a feel-good story is done the right way.
That the filmmakers could once again bring hope to the big screen through Winter and the people at the Clearwater Marine Hospital (and aquarium) is inspiration all its own.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include The Maze Runner, This Is Where I Leave You and A Walk Among the Tombstones. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.