Dolphin Tale: Charles Martin Smith’s Good Family Tale, Starring Harry Connick Jr. and Ashley Judd

Despite some moments of cornball and the occasional gratuitous 3D, the family film Dolphin Tale is irresistibly cute and undeniably well-intentioned, in large part to the sensitive direction of Charles Martin Smith.

This director (also known for his acting role as Toad in “American Graffiti”) previously had major success with another family film, “Air Bud,” in 1997. He shows again in “Dolphin Tale” how to take the standard family film up a few but important notches.

Smith teams up with cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub, best known for “Independence Day” (1996), to make the most of this film’s Florida locations, giving the film a distinctive look that also helps set it apart from the family movie genre.

The underwater sequences are most memorable, capturing the unique playfulness of the dolphin world. Lindenlaub sometimes accomplishes this through clever and effective dolphin point-of-view shots.

“Dolphin Tale,” based on a true story, begins with CGI dolphins at joyous play, basically an animated sequence. One of these dolphins is the curious young creature that will come to be known as Winter in the human world.

She soon gets tangled up in a crab trap and winds up stranded on shore, where troubled youngster Sawyer Nelson (Nathan Gamble) is one of her rescuers. The dolphin and Sawyer form an immediate bond that will change both of their lives.

Sawyer falls in with the marine hospital team that is rehabilitating Winter and which includes a spunky girl his age, Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), who becomes his partner in saving Winter from various perils.

The freckly kids have ample chemistry, and Gamble, reminiscent of Henry Thomas in “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), carries much of this movie on his able young shoulders.

“Dolphin Tale” is a successful mix of a boy-and-his-dog/“E.T.”-type story and a family melodrama. Sawyer’s father has disappeared, and his cousin Kyle (Austin Stowell), who’s been acting as his big brother, is deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, leaving the boy adrift.

His working mom (Ashley Judd) struggles to understand and support Sawyer but cannot for the life of her get him interested in his schoolwork. The marine world that Winter leads the boy into, however, awakens him to the bigger picture.

A weighty subplot emerges when Kyle is injured at war and returns traumatized. Sawyer and his mother visit his cousin, who has become a recluse, at the VA hospital, where director Smith takes the bold step of depicting many veterans in the process of adapting to their new prosthetic limbs.

Sawyer convinces a cranky military doctor (Morgan Freeman) to work on a prosthetic tale for Winter, whose damaged tale had to be amputated shortly after her rescue. Winter, it eventually turns out, has a mission to encourage many of her human counterparts who have likewise lost limbs.

This deeper current to “Dolphin Tale” puts the film in a special category. So few Hollywood films, especially Hollywood films for kids, deal with disabilities in this much depth and with this much care.

Smith drives his point home at the end of film with documentary footage of Winter (who stars in many of the film’s scenes as herself) interacting with the disabled of all ages, who are encouraged to get in the water with her and possibly receive a dolphin kiss.

The screenplay, by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi, captures well that moment when childhood innocence meets grownup realities and sweet kids start to reveal themselves as fine adults-to-be.

The only thing that falls flat is a scene in which Kris Kristofferson (as Hazel’s grandfather) gives Harry Connick Jr. (as Hazel’s father) some overly preachy fatherly advice. Compare this with a magical scene, more exemplary of most of the writing, in which Hazel’s dad shares with Sawyer and Hazel the dolphin-creation legend of the Chumash Indians.

The film is cast well, with Judd and Connick making the most of their smaller roles as two of the coolest parents on the planet and Freeman and Winter competing to steal the show.


Clay Haskett – Harry Connick Jr.

Sawyer Nelson – Nathan Gamble

Lorraine Nelson – Ashley Judd

Reed Haskett – Kris Kristofferson

Dr. McCarthy – Morgan Freeman

Hazel Haskett – Cozi Zuehlsdorff

Kyle – Austin Stowell


A Warmer Bros. Pictures release.

Directed by Charles Martin Smith.

Written by Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi.

Produced by Robert Engelman, Richard Ingber, Broderick Johnson, and Andrew A. Kosove.

Cinematography, Karl Walter Lindenlaub.

Editing, Harvey Rosenstock.

Original Music, Mark Isham.

Running time: 112 minutes.