Of this year's corny family heartwarmers based on true aquatic stories of coping with the loss of appendages, director Charles Martin Smith's boy-and-his-dolphin melodrama at least earns your empathy — unlike the disingenuous Christploitation of Soul Surfer. Off the Florida coast, skittish grade-schooler Nelson (Nathan Gamble) strikes an immediate bond with a bottlenose named Winter (playing herself), freeing her from a crab trap that has irrevocably crippled her tail. Son of a cool single mom (Ashley Judd), Nelson is a dispassionate loner whose only father figure is his older cousin, a former swimming champion who returns home from overseas military deployment wheelchair-bound and traumatized in a surprisingly weighty and grown-up subplot. But the kid finds new purpose in helping out with Winter's rehabilitation at the local Marine hospital, led by Harry Connick Jr.'s good-hearted doc and his spunky, freckled daughter (Cozi Zuehlsdorff). A mildly eccentric prosthetics doctor (MVP Morgan Freeman) is eventually called upon to craft a new flipper for Flipper, and a third-act "Save the Dolphins From Condo Developers" carnival dribbles out the rest of the formula. But the message is too pure to nitpick: By the end of the movie, Winter has become a mascot for human disability, especially for children, and Dolphin Tale has enough depth and sensitivity to tap into emotion without feeling manipulative. (Rated PG)
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