If I were the one running Warner Bros, I must admit it would not have occurred to me to pursue the idea of a sequel to 2011's “Dolphin Tale”.
After all, the first film was the story of how a dolphin lost her tail in a crab trap, only to find her way to an aquarium and animal rescue facility in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she was eventually fitted with an innovative prosthetic. Story told, right? The sequel answers that question with a resounding no, and in doing so, it serves to highlight just how difficult it is for people, even with the best of intentions, to keep these animals in captivity and in good health at the same time. In its own small way, the film is part of the same conversation as “Blackfish,” making the case that it's important work, but under carefully controlled circumstances only, and never at the expense of the animal.
Charles Martin Smith directed both the original film and the sequel, and they are low-key movies, with very small personal stakes for the drama, something that almost feels like a lost art in this age where every movie hero for children has to be somehow involved in saving the world or having magical adventures. Both Nathan Gamble and Cozi Zuehlsdorff return from the first film, where they were the leads, the two kids who had the adventure of helping Winter through her rehab, and the film deals with the way they're dealing with adolescence and the transition into young adulthood.
The work they do with Winter and with the rest of the aquarium is very grown-up, and they both carry a lot of responsibility. As lead characters in films for young people go, these are the sorts of characters I'd like my own kids to admire or emulate. There is a nod in the film to the way their relationship is changing as they get older and hormones kick in, but it's handled with a feather touch. It's more about the way friendships evolve than anything more overtly romantic. Gamble's character is offered a chance to take a college course at sea, a real honor for someone his age, and by any rational standards, he should happily take it.
When a new crisis presents itself, though, Sawyer (Gamble) can't leave. He's too worried about what's going to happen to Winter. He and Hazel (Zuehlsdorff) are stricken by the events, and Winter begins to suffer some serious health repercussions, essentially rejecting her environment, almost going back to zero in terms of dealing with her prosthetic. Hazel's dad, Clay (Harry Connick Jr.) is the guy who is on the line to keep Winter in good health and to keep the place running, and when things go south, he's got to find something to help.
There's a new dolphin in this film, another rescue with a special need, and the movie hinges on whether or not these two animals can live together, whether or not they're going to bond. There's another character introduced in the film that serves as a b-plot about the idea of rescue and release, and I'd call some of the script convenient, but Smith has included a closing-credits sequence designed to show you the real animals whose stories are being told, emphasizing the real-life Hasketts and their work.
Within the film, there's a special appearance by Bethany Hamilton as herself, which led to a conversation after the movie about the reality of what my kids were looking at. They're so used to special effects that they needed to ask to be sure that what they were looking at, and the film emphasizes the role that Winter plays in helping children who are either born without limbs or who lose them. It's lovely, and the entire film basically feels like a big exercise in empathy.
The adults are even more sidelined in this film than they were in the first film, so you can expect a few minutes each of Ashley Judd, Morgan Freeman, and Kris Kristofferson, but that's fine. Charles Martin Smith also makes a brief appearance, and his work as a director has a very strong sense of place. He feels like he's at home in this world, at home with these people, and he's got a shorthand at this point for how he shoots something like one of the rescue scenes, keeping it very real, very stripped down, and not too exaggerated or melodramatic. I always loved “Never Cry Wolf” as a kid, and I still think of it as one of the great nature movies, and Smith's performance in that film had the exact tone of these movies. Human, funny whenever possible, but genuinely in love with nature.
As someone who grew up in the St. Petersburg area in Florida, I thought they did a great job of shooting the St. Petersburg area. It's a sunshiny movie, and Daryn Okada's photography is just as good underwater as out of it.
My own boys were really fond of this one, more than the first movie, although I suspect that's only because this is the one they've seen most recently. They felt to me like they were of a piece. This is just more of the same story with the same people and that same inspirational dolphin at the heart of it, and its sweet nature combined with its strong messages about responsibility and empathy make it feel like something family audiences in particular should enjoy.
“Dolphin Tale 2” is in theaters everywhere today.