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Movie Review

Dolphin Tale

Tale of wounded dolphin is fine family fare

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / September 23, 2011

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It features such name players as Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, and Harry Connick Jr., but the breakout star of “Dolphin Tale’’ is Winter, the dolphin whose real-life story the movie tells. Entangled in a crab trap, Winter was brought in 2005 to the Clearwater Marine Hospital near Tampa, where her flukes were amputated due to extensive tissue damage. A team of specialists worked up a prosthetic tail - some of their breakthroughs have been used in treating wounded Iraq War veterans - and Winter has since swum on to fame and inspirational news segments.

“Dolphin Tale’’ fictionalizes this story without doing any harm, and the result is an excellent family film - maybe not up to 1996’s “Fly Away Home’’ in the kid-helps-wildlife genre but eye-opening and heartwarming and sensibility-expanding all the same. Even the 3-D cinematography is above-average; neither a necessity nor a distraction.

Nathan Gamble plays Sawyer, a 12-year-old moping in the aftermath of his father’s abandonment and the departure of his beloved cousin (Austin Stowell) for Iraq. Present when the stranded dolphin is discovered, the kid tags along to the marine hospital, where he’s befriended by Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff), the spunky daughter of facility head Dr. Clay Haskett (Connick). The dolphin, dubbed Winter, responds to Sawyer, and Mom (a likable Ashley Judd) comes around to his spending the summer there.

In this telling, it’s Sawyer who gets the idea to bring a folksy prosthetics expert (Morgan Freeman) in from the VA hospital where the cousin’s sulking around like Marlon Brando in “The Men.’’ There’s a hurricane to get past, the facility is low on cash, and a developer is hanging in the wings, but director Charles Martin Smith treats these as temporary detours from the main order of business, which is Winter and her recovery.

The dolphin is, quite simply, remarkable, and the unstated message of resilience and adaptation ripples easily off the screen to the smallest viewers. “Dolphin Tale’’ knows Winter is an irrepressible character but it rarely sentimentalizes her or her situation. Anyway, there’s too much work to be done to waste time with cutesy anthropomorphism. The film preserves the mystery of looking into an intelligent animal’s eye and recognizing an alien mind.

At the same time, it’s appreciative of what humans can do - of what a kid could do - to reach out to that mind. Don’t be surprised if young moviegoers come home from the theater and head straight to the SeeWinter.com webcam to spend more time with their new favorite movie star.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

DOLPHIN TALE

Directed by: Charles Martin Smith

Written by: Karen Janszen and Noam Dromi

Starring: Nathan Gamble, Ashley Judd, Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman, Kris Kristofferson, Cozi Zuehlsdorff, and Winter

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs

Running time: 113 minutes

Rated: PG (dolphin peril, wounded war veterans)

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