Film & TV

"Dolphin Tale," a Corny Family Heartwarmer, Still Manages Depth and Sensitivity

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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Aaron Hillis is a regular film contributor at Voice Media Group and its film partner, the Village Voice. VMG publications include LA Weekly, Denver Westword, Phoenix New Times, Miami New Times, Broward-Palm Beach New Times, Houston Press and Dallas Observer.