In this country, there are animals we save, and animals we serve with mayo. Whales, dolphins, and dogs in wheelchairs all get first-class treatment, Living Social spa deals, MRIS. Pigs die. It’s unclear to me how Americans decide who meets the knife and who meets the parents, but it’s very clear to the makers of Dolphin Tale 2 that dolphins – not humans – deserve all of our nonconsensual, non-reciprocated, weird American love and kisses. As a practicing carnivore, I’m not about to judge. But there’s something so bizarrely sanctimonious in the way dolphins rise to deity-level both in the film, and in our culture at large. Dolphin Tale 2 makes no attempt to think about this – or about anything – and the movie’s sweet surface veneer often breaks to reveal its smothering gelatinous backbone. To the director’s credit, however, the story features a smart female protagonist, a thoughtful storyline, and a deeply powerful social justice message: dolphins are cute.
While many PG movies attempt to attract adult audiences, Dolphin Tale 2 is built exclusively for children – which makes sense, since children have terrible taste. The story of one boy’s codependent relationship with a fish (I know dolphins are mammals, it’s a slur y’all), the movie appeals to our most immature fantasies about the living world. In no order of importance, they are:
- Cute animals are helpless victims in a polluted sea of plastic rings.
- Un-cute animals are totally evil and cool to eat.
- Children are smart and competent and should run the world.
- Adults are evil and dumb and should listen to children.
- You can make a difference.
- Life gets better when you’re older.
- Dolphins are the best!
And here’s my debunking of the myths, one by one:
- Rings: not that dangerous, turtles: not that cute
- Lord of the Flies
- Spend a day in Park Slope Brooklyn
- Read. News.
- Try. Tinder.
What makes Dolphin Tale 2 so hard to hate is that it’s not mean-spirited – just cute + sweet + dumb. At the start of the story, Sawyer is a precocious young teenager who’s somehow finagled his way into a management position at his local aquarium. Sawyer appears to have a crush on his fellow instructor Hazel (Cozi Zuehlsdorff) even though his primary love is for dolphins, and he looks like every lesbian I know in New York. Sawyer is offered a scholarship to go study marine biology somewhere famous, but he’s hesitant to go. Winter, his favorite dolphin, is depressed, and Sawyer just doesn’t want to leave him behind.
To clarify: Winter isn’t your average dolphin. In the first Dolphin Tale, she beached herself, and only through the miracle of science (and a degrading national insurance system where dolphins get EKGS and poor people get diabetes), did she survive. Every other day or so, Sawyer adds a small prosthetic tail to Winter’s charming little stub so she can swim. The two share a tender, completely anthropomorphic relationship, until the day Panama (the tank’s other dolphin) dies, jeopardizing Winter’s mood – and Sawyer’s romance.
While it’s unclear to me why Sawyer – whose mother drives a Lexus SUV – is offered a full scholarship, his reluctance to leave feels honest, and natural. Children (and myself) feel a strong kinship with animals because they can project their feelings onto their sweet nonverbal faces. The animals are dependent on them, but it’s the type of helplessness kids can manage: feeding the dog. Petting the cat. Riding the dolphin. Watching Sawyer interact with Winter, I sat back and remembered how merged I once felt with animals, nature, the world around me. Gross.
Around halfway through, however, Dolphin Tale 2 actually proposes a real conflict, which requires real thinking. Winter can only be relieved from her depression if another (female) dolphin joins her in the tank. Mandy, a recovering dolphin on the other side of the aquarium, is a possible candidate, but aquarium manager Clay (Harry Connick Jr) has his reservations. While Mandy could potentially relieve Winter from her isolation, Mandy is too healthy to be incarcerated, and deserves to be swimming in an open ocean. Does Clay put Mandy in the tank, saving Winter but putting her own freedom in jeopardy?
It’s a hard question, with no easy answers but plenty of dumb ones. And Dolphin Tale – being Dolphin Tale – responds with plenty of the latter, as well as a whole other ludicrous subplot where a TURTLE GETS AN MRI and an irascible pelican (!) gets a talking-to. My favorite scene in the entire story had to be when some snotty kid and her handicapped Vietnam vet grandfather go to visit Winter in the tank. Winter hasn’t moved in weeks, but when she sees the old veteran, she immediately identifies and swims over to him. It’s supposed to be a tender moment until you actually start thinking about the relational pattern: handicapped Vietnam veteran connects with crying Tampa bay dolphin because the two share a history of marginalization, prosthetic feet? That dolphin will be taken care of for the rest of her life, while that WAR VETERAN will probably never have a job (although with the right sticker, a lifetime of good parking spots).
Acting is consistently meh throughout, with meh plus performances by Morgan Freeman, Harry Connick Jr, Ashley Judd. I’d like to give director Charles Martin Smith some props for featuring a strong female lead in the form of Hazel, a plucky pre-teen with more interest in her career than in Sawyer. Hazel loves to make documentaries, push adults around (stupid ‘marine biologists’ with their stupid ‘graduate degrees’), and talk. A lot. You’ll want to jump through the screen and smack her, before you remember she’s just a child. In a movie you’re watching by choice, on a Sunday, during a matinee, maybe crying, definitely alone.
The first Dolphin Tale received consistently positive reviews from critics, and the second appears to have followed suit. To be fair, it’s hard to hate on a movie whose message is fundamentally kind – save cute animals! (eat gross ones) – and who features smart tween heroes taking charge in an unfair adult world. Some of the underwater photography is strikingly beautiful, and dolphins are in fact cute. But Smith took no time to actually think through the logical consequences of his plot, or the emotional complications of his argument. At the end of the movie, Dolphin Tale 2 switches over to some documentary footage of the actual Tampa Bay aquarium. We’re shown real-life children with physical disabilities coming over to pet and play with a real-life Winter. There’s something so paternalistic and exploitative about a scene where kids with handicaps are put on display for our smiles and our pity. It’s a small scene, but a symbolic one, in a movie and a world where adults are evil, children are mighty, and justice is won with a hug.